What makes an ending special? Is it that resonant line of dialogue? A cruel twist? A satisfying moment of redemption for our hero? A clever wink at the audience? The answer is yes. But none of it is easy. And the more movies that are made, the less likely we are to see something that transcends. As viewers, we learn the beats, the tricks filmmakers use to have us vibrating as we amble out of the theater. The Wall, set in Iraq shortly after the war, has one of the great movie endings I can recall in recent times. The modestly budgeted film is essentially a two-hander between Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s U.S. soldier and an unseen Iraqi sniper known only as Juba, based on the real-life figure. The movie’s director, Doug Liman, has become known for a kind of controlled chaos on his sets, freely improvising major beats in an effort to facilitate the best possible outcome. Sometimes that chaos manifests in a kind of genius popcorn moviemaking. Around Hollywood, they call it Limania — it reared its head on the set of The Wall, too. In this case, it worked.
"Because of the budget constraints and because of the kind of movie it was, I had to sort of break the script apart before I started shooting, which I did, in the weeks before we started shooting. That wreaks havoc because [producers] like everything to be set in stone. So I got it set back in stone before the first day of shooting," Liman says. "And then … I went and reshot the ending six months after I shot the movie and changed the ending radically.
"It was such a radical idea but once I had it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is obviously how the film needs to end.’ And I think that’s what sometimes can infuriate the people I work with is, once I hear a better idea, it has to be in the movie."
To be clear, this, while not unprecedented, is highly unusual in moviemaking. The Wall was funded by Amazon Studios, and is based on a Black List–winning script by screenwriter Dwain Worrell — in fact, it was the first script the erstwhile online retailer’s new film division purchased and put into development.
"I had done a friends-and-family screening and we were pretty close to locking picture, and a friend, John Freeman Gill — a novelist who’s a creative and smart guy — was at the screening and he said to me, ‘I think you should change the ending.’ I mentioned it to my producer Dave Bartis and he was like, ‘Don’t talk to John anymore.’ [He said] ‘We’re not rocking the boat like that.’ That’s a constant refrain on my career: Don’t rock the boat, we’re in good shape," Liman says. "I said, ‘I know we’re in good shape, this will make the movie great, this is exactly what the movie needs.’ And then I pitched it to Aaron Taylor-Johnson and he loved it.
"We did a screening of the movie two weeks ago and we screened it for about 500 members of the military, which is really important for me because I felt like we made it with them. The writer was up there with me and somebody asked a question: ‘The ending was extraordinary, how did you come up with it?’ [Worrell] and I hadn’t even talked about it, things are happening so fast, it wasn’t that long ago I shot the new ending and just put it on the movie. [Worrell] just fessed up. He was like, ‘It was news to [me], too.’ But that’s how I work."
To reveal the ending would be cruel — The Wall is a serious, lean, sharply made movie about two voices trying and failing to understand one another, and it’s worth seeing. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it ends with a crooked smile — almost all of Liman’s films, from Swingers to Mr. & Mrs. Smith to Edge of Tomorrow, close with a kind of acidic coda.
"Swingers was set in stone, except the ending," Liman says. "Something about the ending wasn’t right. In that case, you know, about two weeks before we started shooting the movie, I was determined to fix it. Jon Favreau and I came up with a new way to end the film. In that case, we did it before we started shooting."
"On Live Die Repeat [Editor’s note: confusingly better known as Edge of Tomorrow], we were really having trouble figuring out how to end the movie. In fact, that’s a manufactured ending. It ends with Tom Cruise laughing — he’s laughing at me. [We were on set and] and I’m talking to him. Emily Blunt is not even there. We were just playing around and I got that reaction from Tom. Then we went from that to being like, ‘That actually works pretty well,’ to [that’s the ending]. And then we thought, Well, if we’re going to do that, let’s shoot it for real. So we went back and had Emily Blunt prompt Tom and had him perform to Emily — but we ended up using the original [take] where he was just laughing at me. There was something honest about that, that we just couldn’t get back to."
"It’s a pretty good metaphor for my process where there’s things I want to find," he says. "There’s other filmmakers like Hitchcock, who, they’ll have the whole film mapped out before they start. They know every shot, every moment. I want to find things. I want to find moments. That’s my favorite thing, when you find a moment that could never be replicated. Tom Cruise is a brilliant actor, giant movie star, and whatever was happening in that moment with me, couldn’t be replicated."
Despite his tendency to rip it up and start again, Liman says the circumstances of working with Amazon made the chance to reinvent The Wall’s ending far easier than if he’d been working with a traditional studio.
"I’d never made a film for Amazon before. And I went to [head of motion pictures] Ted Hope and [head of marketing and distribution] Bob Berney, who run the film division, and said, ‘I want to change the ending. I know this is really bold and outrageous. I recognize that this is not how a studio would think of ending a film. So, I’ll pay for it. I wanna go shoot it, but I just recognize that this is going to be so far outside your comfort zone, I’m gonna pay for it, and let me shoot it, put it on the movie and then we can talk about it, but I have to go do this, so I’m gonna go do it.’ And Ted and Bob said, ‘You know, that is a way cooler ending. It may not be as commercial as the original ending, but we think it’s a better movie, and we want you to make the better movie, even if it doesn’t make as much money. So, we’ll pay for that.’
"There’s no studio in the world that would have said that to me."