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All Systems Are 'Go'

Doug Liman follows his 'Swingers' success with another tale of youthful abandon. He's trying hard to hold on to that spirit himself, but at the ripe old age of 32, it isn't easy.

April 07, 1999|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PARK CITY, Utah — Director Doug Liman has a very deliberate manner that's not only slightly maddening, it's wildly at odds with some of the things he says and does. Take, for example, his friends' initiation to the Sundance Film Festival.

"The first night my friends got here, we decided we would all hike up to the top of Deer Valley and ski down naked in the middle of the night, just for the hell of it," he says matter-of-factly, sitting in the lobby of a condo that overlooks the ski run.

"So we did it," he continues, "for no reason other than somebody suggested it and no one was going to be the one to say they weren't going to do it. Probably shouldn't 'fess up to it because a couple of security cars pulled up to the base of Deer Valley with their spotlights on. We were already on our deck in our hot tub warming up. We just watched them searching around."

"Was he really skiing naked?" says a disbelieving Scott Wolf ("Party of Five"), when asked about it later. "That's suspect. I'd verify that."

Liman's newest movie, "Go," which opens this weekend, trades on some of this wildness. It premiered in January at Sundance and features Wolf, Katie Holmes, Sarah Polley, Jay Mohr, Desmond Askew, Timothy Olyphant, Taye Diggs and William Fichtner. It might be described as a "Pulp Fiction" without the nihilism, with interlocking stories and a narrative that loops back on itself. As with Liman and his naked skiing escapade, the twentysomethings in this film engage in all sorts of questionable activities--drugs, casual sex, carjacking--although Liman is celebrating the spirit behind this behavior, not endorsing it.

In fact, he's trying to maintain some of this innocence in himself, though now that he's 32, he's finding it hard. This truth was brought home to him the week before Sundance when he took a hard fall on his back while skiing through the trees. He's sure he came within inches of being paralyzed. (He did have his clothes on, however.)

"Probably part of why I wanted to make this film is that it's about a simpler time in life, when you don't worry about things, you just do it," he says. "Because the reality is: When you get older, you will sit there and fixate on the fact that that branch came 3 inches from your spine. Whereas when you're 18, you go, 'Wow, that hurt.' "

Some of this sensibility is evident in Liman's previous film, the low-budget hit "Swingers," a knowing look at a group of nerdy, unemployed actors that launched Liman's career and that of actor Vince Vaughn.

"Go" represents the inevitable step forward in profile, production values and anxiety. Liman says he had a horrible time making it--and he loved every minute.

"It's sort of like hosting a party," he says. "As long as everyone else is having fun, then you feel good."

One of the many ironies about Liman is that he may throw a good party, but his guests found his slow, deliberate manner of speaking bewildering, if not maddening. Olyphant says he took Liman's approach personally until he started comparing notes with his fellow actors and realized that they were experiencing . . . the same . . . thing.

"He definitely is a unique energy, and his communication is unique," Wolf says, laughing. "And so, sometimes it's hard to interpret exactly what he's looking for. It's like one of those things where from the tone or the inflection it seems like he's decided it's your turn to say something, but you know from what's being said that it's still his turn, so you have to wait for the finish of it. I think some people probably find that frustrating, but to me it was intriguing. I had such faith in his ideas and his instincts and his vision for the film that it was well worth the little bit of extra time to figure it out."

Liman wore a lot of hats on "Go." He served as his own director of photography, although this credit won't appear in the film (much to his annoyance) because Writers Guild rules forbid the director from taking the credit on the same card. He also had his hands full with the studio (Columbia) over proposed changes to the script, most of them having to do with references to people or products that the filmmakers hadn't gotten permission to use.

"So a character says, 'I think Traci Lords is the promoter of the party,' " Liman says. "They mark that and say, 'If you can't get Traci Lords' permission, then they can't say the line.' I received a 30-page memo from the studio, single-spaced, of references in the script. Some of it was references to a product, something like, 'If they're in a supermarket, here is what you can't see,' which is obviously impossible. How are you not going to see products?

"I quickly realized how this was spiraling out of control, and there was this team of lawyers emasculating the script or making it just generic," he continues. "If they had their way, there would be no references to anyone who exists, any product that exists; it wouldn't take place in a real place or real time."

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