It’s not the first time news of a much-rumored big-movie romance has gone supernova. But… the saga of [Brad and Angelina] sets a new, 21st-century benchmark–a sort of perfect publicity storm centered on two beautiful people whom the public is treating as daydream playthings, to the chagrin of at least one player among Mr. & Mrs. Smith‘s creative team.
“I don’t like the exploitation of personal lives in tabloids,” says Akiva Goldsman, one of five main producers on Smith. “I think it’s grim. I don’t think it helps anybody. Do I think it helps or hurts the movie? I think it’s irrelevant. Do I think it hurts the people involved? Sure.”
(Pitt and Jolie declined to be interviewed for this article, though Jolie did tell EW earlier this year that while acting out the marital travails of her character, she drew on life experiences with two ex-husbands, Jonny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thornton: “For me, it was a lot of thinking about old relationships I had—marriages I had—and thinking, Oh, that’s the point where I wanted to kill that person.”)
But another key player in the maelstrom did agree to talk to us at length: director Doug Liman, an outspoken fellow who made his name with the indie movies Swingers and Go, before stepping up to summer-blockbuster territory with The Bourne Identity.
EW: What’s it like directing two of the world’s biggest tabloid attention magnets?
Doug Liman: There were always paparazzi. Crazy paparazzi. One of my producers, Lucas Foster, made it his mission to keep them away [from outside locations]. I’d be getting ready to shoot, and there’d be a crane where I’m pointing the camera. I’d be like, Who put that there? Lucas would say, “I’m not moving that crane. There’s photographers in that hotel room up there, and I’m blocking them.” It became a constant thing of, we’re going to have to paint it out [with CG erasure tricks]. Ten grand a shot.
EW: Did it escalate this past spring, when Jennifer Aniston filed for divorce from Pitt right around the time you were doing some reshoots?
DL: They followed Brad the first day. Somebody said, “That’s Brad arriving. We heard the helicopter before we heard him—a helicopter that had been following him since he left the Beverly Hills Hotel. That was taking it up to a new level. We were told that a photo of the two of them together would be worth $300,000. So we were all like, Hmmmm! I tell ya, I had to think twice about that one. [Then they] were using a scanner to listen to our walkie-talkies. And one of the PAs got yelled at because he said something that could have been misinterpreted. We were shooting in the supermarket-shelf section of an IKEA-type store, and [Pitt and Jolie} were like, you know, fiddling around with the paddle balls or something. What actors do between takes. And a PA said, “Brad is screwing around with Angie.” They’re like, Look, you’ve got to be careful how you speak if you’re going to say something over the radio about them. On this movie, saying someone was “screwing around” would have a different context.
EW: You had Nicole Kidman attached—but then she started filming The Stepford Wives in late spring 2003.
DL: On their first week of shooting, they were like, We’re [already] two and a half months behind schedule. [Laughter] And that’s the day we were like, ‘She can’t do our movie.’ Which really broke my heart, ‘cause I knew what was going to happen next: We were gonna lose Brad. And at some point during that process, sure enough, he did say, I’m passing.
EW: So offers went out to Johnny Depp and Will Smith.
DL: There were some of us who liked one of them a lot more than the other, and some of us in the camp who liked the other one more. I won’t get anyone in trouble, but the end result is we ended up pursuing both. Then Brad changed his mind and said, I’m interested again. David Fincher [who directed Pitt in Fight Club] explained to me, ‘Get used to it.’ That’s just the nature of the beast making a movie with Brad Pitt.
EW: Did you ever think of trying to cast an actual married couple, the way Stanley Kubrick did with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut?
DL: No, but I had been interested in casting Gwyneth Paltrow opposite Brad Pitt. Because they’re really exes. Think of the spectacle of that. Fireworks could really fly in that situation. Because I’m sure there’s some s* one of them was mad at the other one for. You find out what that baggage is and bring it out at the right moment, with the camera rolling. My producers were like, Look, that’s a great idea. But Brad is a human being. Even if he was game for it, it’s wrong for us to put him in a situation where he’s going to have to relive the demons of a relationship. That’s just a little bit too mad-scientist.
EW: So after you lost Nicole and gave up on the Gwyneth idea, who’d you consider before you got to Angelina?
DL: We really liked Cate Blanchett. Around that time, she’d come out with a [magazine-ad] photo spread where she looked like a spy. But she wasn’t available—she was doing The Aviator. Somehow Catherine Zeta-Jones’ name came up, but there wasn’t a lot of unanimity about casting her, as there was about Angelina Jolie.
EW: Mr. & Mrs. Smith is remarkably consistent in tone. It has action-movie violence, but it’s played almost as comedy. How hard was it to get that?
DL: Simon Kinberg’s script was actually funnier. There was a moment I loved in the script where she grabs his golf trophy. And she’s going to club him over the head with it and he says, ‘No! Don’t! I’m only the custodian of that for the year!’ [But] it was a little too goofy for Brad and Angie.
It’s always a tricky dance with those two. I mean, [Pitt] picked me. But that didn’t mean he was going to relinquish all control. And he’s not wrong for that. I think these movie stars become movie stars because they get very involved. They’re not just pawns.
EW: Did the “Brangelina” stories affect the editing of Mr. & Mrs. Smith?
DL: I did have a really frank conversation with Dave Matalon [who runs Regency], when we were mixing the movie, about what kind of music would be on the sex scene. I wanted Joe Strummer singing “Mondo Bongo,” which is a little tribal and for me very sexy. Dave said, Look, I’m honestly worried about the Jennifer Aniston fans out there. I don’t want to lose that little niche audience of people who are huge Jennifer Aniston fans who are going to hate Angelina Jolie if the sex scene is too sexy. People will see the sex scene and say, ‘Oh, that’s how Angie did it.’ It’ll be like, She used her wiles to seduce him. I would rather put something sweeter musically over the sex scene. I’m not telling you it’s better, I’m…telling you where I’m coming from.
EW: What about actually filming that scene?
DL: It was awkward for me, coming from a relatively uptight family. To break the ice, I thought I would use one of those techniques where you talk about something embarrassing about yourself, and it’s a big bonding experience. It wasn’t that well thought out, but somehow it came out that I had an ex-girlfriend who’d given me the nickname Bunny. And I said, I’m sure, Angie, that you’ve had cute names like that for your boyfriends. And Brad, I’m sure you’ve had girlfriends who called you, y’know Little Mushroom, or Walnut or My Little Scrubby-Wubby. I honestly thought everybody does this. And they were like, “…Uh, no.” So I was left there. It wasn’t a bonding experience at all. I lost all sexual credibility with Angie on the spot. She called me Bunny from then on. She never let me forget. They were both like, You’re so not qualified to pass judgment on positions we might be in [for the scene]. You’re the guy whose girlfriend called you Bunny.
EW: When the cameras actually rolled, was it as awkward for your costars as it seems to have been for you?
DL: They were pretty comfortable with it. I mean, I think Brad and I were more uncomfortable, cause she’s such a force to be reckoned with. Occasionally she’d make a comment and both of us would be like, Whoa!
She’s just very—she likes to be shocking sexually. Just read any interview she’s given. She likes to be that person in the room who’s least embarrassed, and willing to put it out there. Eventually, to try to recover from the Bunny thing, I suggested [she should perform] the most graphic, crazy sex act I could imagine [for the love scene]. Just to try to shock her. Like, 10 steps beyond anything I’d consider doing in my own life. She starts furrowing her eyebrows and I’m like, Oh, never heard of that one? Guess Bunny’s not that sheltered! And she’s like, No, actually, I’m just trying to figure out whether I’ve done that one.
EW: How did Brad and Angelina influence each other’s acting?
DL: She in the movie is playing the way Brad is in real life, and vice versa. I mean, he really is a homemaker. He’s into fabrics and art and architecture and what color is on the wall, is it eggshell or ecru? But for Angie, bringing her into that suburban home and trying to sit [her] down at the dinner table? I might as well have asked her to simulate being on a spacecraft. She had no point of reference at all, from her own life, of what a normal home would be like. And she’s much more into weapons, as a human being, than Brad is. Any time my prop guy did show-and-tells of knives and guns, she’d be very, very, knowledgeable. I’m looking at them wondering if they look cool, and she’s asking, Does this also come with a serrated blade? And which particular kind of hook, once you stick it into somebody, is good for ripping their flesh on the way out?
EW: You tried building an ending to Mr. & Mrs. Smith around the couple defeating two villains—initially played by Jacqueline Bisset and Terance Stamp, then recast with Angela Bassett and Keith David. You basically cut those characters out. Why?
DL: It was important to not give it that resolution. Because if you think about a relationship, there is no point at which you suddenly defeat the forces of antagonism. It’s not like, Oh, we got married, we’re finished having to fight for the relationship. Or, We celebrated our fifth anniversary, now it’s easy. It’s never easy. It takes work every day. People assume the rich and famous have it easy. Actually as evidenced by recent events, it’s no easier for Brad Pitt to maintain a marriage than it is for, you know the neighbors on three. People assume because he [flies in] private jets and has huge mansions that life must be great inside those. It doesn’t get easier just because you’re an international assassin. And it doesn’t get easier because you’re Brad Pitt.