Or how spies, lies, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq has Doug Liman seeing RED

It’s easy to be dazzled by the high-tech gadgets and superhuman invincibility of the spies portrayed in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

But there’s another side to espionage, the John le Carré world, where the “spooks” are regular people with mundane day-to-day routines. Think covert operative Richard Burton in Martin Ritt’s masterful film, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, shopping at his corner market for tins of beef and asking for credit from a disapproving and judgmental grocer (played by actor Bernard Lee, more famous for his role as “M” in the Bond films).

Triple-hyphenate (director/cinematographer/producer) Doug Liman, whose credits include The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, admits to being fascinated by how the game of spy vs. spy plays out in the real world. “My mantra was always, how come we never see James Bond pay a phone bill?” he puzzles. “I don’t care who you are, you still got to pay your phone bill! It’s sort of trite, of course, but that thought affected how we did the action sequences for Bourne Identity. Jason Bourne lives in our world. He actually gets hit and hurt, just like in the real world.”

Who Can You Trust?

Reality, of course, is at the center of Liman’s newest film, Fair Game, which relives the Bush Presidency’s scandal of CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), who after being sent by the U.S. government to Niger to confirm reports of large uranium purchases by the Iraqi government, determined the reports to be unfounded. And no uranium meant no reasonable justification for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Wilson was no fan of Saddam. He’d been the last American diplomat to meet with the Iraqi dictator and had, in fact, demanded that Saddam’s forces be withdrawn from Kuwait. However, Wilson became outraged when he saw the same reports he’d confirmed as being untrue, being used anyway to help topple Hussein’s regime.

The angered diplomat decided to write a New York Times op-ed piece debunking the White House claims, thus setting off a chain reaction that would threaten his career and marriage. In an attempt to discredit Wilson, an “anonymous source” inside the Bush Administration leaked the covert identity of Plame, then leader of the CIA’s Joint Task Force on Iraq.

“We wanted to tell a personal story set against the larger canvas of the march to war in Iraq,” explains Fair Game producer Janet Zucker, whose husband and noted director, Jerry Zucker was also a producer on the film. Both Zuckers had met Plame and Wilson at a social gathering during one of their many trips to Washington, D.C., fighting for their own personal cause – stem cell research.

“Valerie and I really connected,” Janet Zucker recalls. “The first night we met, we stayed up until three in the morning talking. The film accurately portrays Joe’s feelings of dismay when Valerie won’t defend him publicly, as well as her initial anger at Joe because the impact on her life was profound. Valerie was a good soldier. Her father was in the military. She was recruited by the Agency out of college, and she loved her life in the CIA.”

As dramatized by screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, Wilson and Plame’s complex and threatened relationship draws the audience into the larger issues at play during America’s so-called “war on terror.” And because of that, the filmmakers wanted to avoid a patronizing history lesson.

“I worked on the Obama campaign,” Liman continues, “and I saw that the average American doesn’t want to be lectured by New York or Hollywood liberals, whose world is very different from their own. I understand why the average American feels alienated by the film business. So I fought very hard during script development to make sure the story we were telling was not at all preachy.”

It Takes A Thief

With a modest $22 million budget, Fair Game shot in numerous locations including D.C., New York, Jordan, Egypt, Malaysia and even some on-the-run scenes in Iraq. To get a variety of shots, especially ones reflecting the passing of seasons, Liman exploited his love for small and stealthy “bandit” production teams.

“Doug found out there was a St. Patrick’s Day parade going on,” Janet Zucker remembers. “We didn’t have the money to stage a parade. So we went on a weekend while still in pre-production with a small unit and Naomi, and shot that piece. As a producer, my office was a tree stump in the rain! I soon realized that I needed to be prepared for anything when shooting with Doug.”

“He operates well in controlled chaos,” echoes second unit DP Robby Baumgartner of the director/cinematographer. “He likes everybody to be in this heightened state all the time. It’s total guerilla filmmaking. We had guerilla units, rogue units and finally we went terrorist. It was amazing.”

Of course, not every scene required such battle plans. The everyday life of Wilson and Plame was a relatively safe and inviting at-home haven before Wilson’s article was published, and the ominous forces soon threatened from without and within.

Liman, who says he enjoys shooting intimate handheld interiors, puts the approach this way: “When I have a conversation, I’m not always in the same room with someone. And when you’re married, you don’t always need to look that person right in the eyes, unless you’re asking them if they’re cheating or something.”

Having worked with the RED One for some sequences in Jumper, he decided to use the available (at that time) Mysterium chip and firmware build 17, for Fair Game as it suited the intimate, handheld workflow.

“My favorite camera is the Aaton 35, a small documentary-style 35 mm camera,” Liman explains. “The Aaton is why Swingers, Go or Bourne Identity didn’t look like the movies that were coming out around them. However, the Aaton isn’t really a (good) synch sound camera. It sounds like a sewing machine. So I would wrap a down jacket around it and then wrap a down comforter around that! During Swingers, Jon Favreau described it as acting to a giant snowball. It was this big, fluffy-looking thing on my shoulder. Usually the camera is black and it looks like a weapon. I guess there’s a style of directing where it’s useful for the actors to be staring at a weapon,” he laughs. “But I’m much more interested in creating a safe space.”

Liman calls the RED One he employed “a better version of the Aaton 35, because it’s the same size and reloads just as quickly. But my AC, Nick Demas, can see a high-def image, so if there’s a focus problem, it can be fixed on the spot as opposed to waiting for dailies.”

Baumgartner states that he was very happy with the footage shot inside the Wilson’s District of Columbia house, a practical location in Westchester County, NY. “It was almost always 360 (degrees) all the time,” he explains. “We worked closely with (gaffer) Steve Ramsey to maintain a natural, uninterrupted look. Key grip Kevin Smyth and Ramsey were able to screw (lighting units) into the ceiling to give Doug the freedom to move around. It also meant good pre-planning with a lot of hidden lights carefully placed to augment the natural light.” Like lightweight Kino Flo units rigged directly over interior windows to augment daylight.

“If you can create a space where the director and actors have the freedom to perform, and it’s lit in an acceptable way, that’s the best of all worlds. Doug was happiest if he came onto set and did not see lighting units and C-stands. It was best if he wore a baseball hat because then he could block out all the lights rigged to the ceiling. I was always asking him to give the guys a foot – all we needed was a foot of wall-to-ceiling space and we made the 360 happen,” says Baumgartner. “Let the directors and actors have the stage, then figure out the way to shoot within that.”

Real Life Shot The Real Way

Liman outfitted his RED system with Master Primes and Zeiss Superspeeds, which were put to good use for Fair Game’s moments of intense and eruptive action. One Iraqi sequence takes place inside a car stuck at a checkpoint, as gunfire suddenly ensues. To convey the required sense of claustrophobic panic, Liman felt it imperative to shoot the entire sequence from the backseat of the tiny car.

“At first, Doug thought he’d have to shoot with a 235 because he didn’t think the RED would get small enough,” explains DIT Eric Camp. “With the RED you end up tacking a lot of little things onto it in order to get it to do what you want. I told him I could build some cables and electronics to allow him to remove all the stuff from the camera, but that I was going to need to rob electronics and pieces from a RED battery charger. The camera house was more than likely going to bill us for this charger, and (Doug) had to trust that I could build this thing in one night!”

Camp says Liman gave his immediate consent, and the DIT ended up in an Egyptian machine shop, “having them cut me out the pieces I needed, as I soldered it all together. We called it the ‘Frankenstein rig,’ and it worked! At one point I had some stripped screws and I’m trying to explain to an Egyptian machinist what I want him to drill out and what I don’t want him to drill out. It was a great and trusting collaboration on Doug’s part.”

And shooting in the Middle East was not without real-life regional politics. The story calls for Plame to recruit an Iraqi doctor (Liraz Charhi), now living in the United States, to go to Iraq to ask her brother (Khaled Nabawy), a scientist, if Saddam is pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Originally, a sequence of the doctor’s arrival at a Baghdad airport was to be shot in Cairo. However, some in the Egyptian film community objected to the actress, an Israeli, working in Egypt. Undeterred, Liman mobilized one of his bandit units, and led them to the Baghdad airport where the sequence was shot. Once in Iraq, Liman also grabbed shots of mosques and military convoys.

While the tense and unpredictable documentary style dominates much of Fair Game, Steadicam operator Brant Fagan, SOC augmented some scenes.

“A lot of Doug’s style is ‘You’re right there and the tension is palpable,’” the veteran operator recalls. “But there were other times where instead of having the audience feel the tension of the handheld frame, Doug wanted the actor to be the lightning rod. For example, there’s a scene where Joe (Wilson) is hounded by a reporter at a restaurant and finally blows up at her. A series of takes featured me on the Steadicam because it allowed Sean (Penn) to explode inside the space, to be the focal point as opposed to the frame being alive. We did cover it so there’s good coverage. But some of the big pieces were centered around the Steadicam.”

Liman says that with a real-life story like Fair Game (based on separate books by Plame and Wilson), he prefers shooting where events actually took place. Unfortunately, it was not possible to shoot the uranium mine scenes in Niger. Instead, the Giza region of Egypt became a stand-in (perhaps the only film company to purposefully turn their cameras away from the pyramids). The challenge though was finding actors who were not Arab to play Nigerian extras. The production found a church for Sudanese refugees, and employed many in the parish, which had the collateral impact of giving the refugees some much-needed income.

Overall, the director/cinematographer reports being “extremely impressed,” with the RED’s performance. “We had two cameras. They never broke, even in some really brutal environments,” he recounts. “You have to keep ice packs on a camera in the Middle East to keep it from overheating. Sometimes the crew would catch me pulling the ice pack off the camera and putting it onto my own neck. They’d take it back saying the camera’s going to short out. I told them I was going to short out. The cameras had more people tending to them than I had tending to me,” he laughs.

Zucker, who spent more than four years bringing the Plame-Wilson story to the screen, calls the project a true labor of love. “We had extremely ambitious days,” she concludes, “and had to use every bit of our ingenuity throughout. Naomi Watts was always prepared and game for anything, and Doug wanted everything to be very authentic in every area. This is much more than a spy story; it’s the story of a marriage with incredibly rich characters.”

By Ted Elrick / Photos by Ken Regan