The Wall is a military thriller about two snipers trapped behind a shaky wall while they’re involved in a cat-and-mouse battle with a hidden Iraqi sniper. Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) trusts WWE superstar John Cena (The Marine) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Nocturnal Animals) to carry the movie: they’re on-screen by themselves for almost the entire ninety minutes.
Amazon Studios funded the movie and gave a talented group the freedom to make the movie they wanted on a limited budget. Those restrictions work in the movie’s favor and it’s a blast to watch a big-budget action director work this way. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is on a tear: this performance is equal to his Golden Globe-winning role in Nocturnal Animals and John Cena gets a chance to prove he can really act.
Cena, Liman and Taylor-Johnson all spoke with Military.com about The Wall last week and they gave us a lot of insight into the realism they were aiming for, how they prepared for the film and John shared a few things about his “day job” in the WWE.
The WWE and the military men and women seem to have a great affinity for each other.
The term mutual respect couldn’t be more appropriate. I think that’s because our service men and women see how dedicated the WWE is. Not only in providing entertainment for our service men and women, but for pledging our support to anybody that puts on a uniform.
Sometimes it’s difficult for people to say the way they feel, but we at WWE certainly loudly and proudly support all of our service men and women. That’s a message we’ve been sending for a long time, even when maybe it was the “coolest” message to send, we still did it. I think that in turn earned the respect of everybody that defends our country’s freedom. I certainly can speak for the entire WWE, not only locker room, but corporate office, and say we more than respect what they do for us.
The WWE has managed to turn “The Marine” into a long-running series of movies. You’re the original Marine. Tell us how you got that part.
Like most things in my life, that was a happy accident. My part in The Marine was originally written for Stone Cold Steve Austin and things didn’t work out. About a month from shooting, I was told that I would do this movie.
I kind of fell into the world of WWE by accident and then I fell into the world of WWE Studios. I just went over there and did the absolute best I could. I was very, very privileged to be a part of a wonderful project and something that still rings true after all this time. It filmed in 2004, so if people are still talking about it today, we did something right. The fact that they’re still making Marine movies is a pretty cool thing to see.
It was a great first experience to be on film and I certainly don’t regret it at all. I wish I could go back and do it now again. I guess everybody says, “If I already knew then what I know now I’d be all right,” but I still am very happy.
Had you thought about being an actor before they told you you were going to take the lead in “The Marine”?
No, not at all. That was right in the beginning of the avalanche that was this wild, crazy rollercoaster I’ve been on with the WWE. I’ve had opportunities to be in WWE Studio Productions over the course of 2004, 2008, but it didn’t have the same attraction of actually being in the ring and doing my thing. That’s what I really love the most. It’s been 15 years now and I’m 40, so I’m looking at life a little bit different.
Now I feel my skills are honed enough to be able to contribute, especially to wonderful projects like The Wall. When you watch it, you’ll be able to enjoy the movie and you won’t see John Cena, which is a difficult thing because everybody is so used to seeing me as me. I think they did a great job of just allowing me to do what I can and contribute to a great movie this time around.
There are basically just two faces on screen for 90 minutes and you’re one of the guys who has to carry this move. It’s a big step up from your recent parts in movies like “Trainwreck” or “Daddy’s Home.” What was it like working with Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Doug Liman?
Those are two true professionals. Aaron gave his heart and soul to this picture and Doug did as well. I am very attracted to passion and I’m very attracted to dedication because complacency pisses me off. To be in an environment where everybody just clocked in to kick ass was awesome. That helped to bring the best out of me as well.
Aaron is just a stud, flat out, and when anybody watches the movie they’ll be able to see that. He transformed that character into something amazing. For Doug to be able to shoot the movie in 14 days and get the product that he got and the performances that he got, it’s just a testament to him as a director. I was, once again, fortunate to be on a good team this time around.
This movie has a limited scope. It’s about the the effects or the story and not a series of epic locations. It’s all on you and Aaron to bring this movie across.
We made this thing for peanuts, so you’re pretty much spot-on. If you have a really good story, people still are attracted to a really good story. Then you just have to get the right team around you to tell the story and then hopefully that’s the makings of a good movie. It’s not always about how big the checkbook is.
A big part of being a soldier is all of the sitting around and waiting for something to happen. You seem to capture that tedium really well in this film.
I don’t think many people realize just how awkward that is to be idle for so long, but have your senses heightened all the time. Especially in areas of conflict. There’s a lot of just waiting around and then all of a sudden it’s go-time. Even when it’s go-time, a lot of times it’s still justwaiting around. A lot of folks don’t understand what it’s like to be in those situations and to be on high alert all the time, every day, for long periods of time.
We try to take the angle that you almost become immune to it. I adopted the angle that my character thinks he knows everything about everything and that leads to a very critical mistake.
You really disappear into this character and viewers can forget that they’re watching John Cena the wrestler. As you prove yourself at the craft, are you thinking about getting more seriously into acting?
Well, I enjoy it. I’m in a very fortunate spot to be a part of projects that I am passionate about. That’s what makes work fun. We did get our butts kicked out there in the desert for two weeks, but everybody was onboard and it really made for a good project.
After the first time I read the script cover to cover, I knew that I would contribute to this in any way possible. So that’s how it starts. You hope for it to be as big a monetary success as you can imagine, but I’m so very happy with what I’ve seen. Everybody involved was ready to go in and kick some butt. And that’s what we did.
So you’ve still got your day job, if we want to call it that.
I love that. I think we’re the only two guys that say that. I call it my day job and everybody looks at me like I’m crazy.
How much longer are you gonna stay in the ring? How long do you want to keep active in the WWE?
The WWE universe, our fan base, is extremely critical and they’re extremely astute. If you slow down a step, they’ll let you know. But I made it a point, and it’s taken a lot of extra effort on my part, to really step my game up mentally, physically, and show that not only do I belong, but I want to be an elite level performer for quite some time.
I feel really good. It pains me to be drawn away from the WWE, but these opportunities that are outside are so great. Not only just for myself, but for the brand as well. If you do something outside of the WWE that’s a success, people perceive the brand in a different way, and that’s certainly one of my ultimate goals. I just want to let that audience know that I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. I know that’s gonna please a lot of people and upset a lot of people, but either way it’s what I love the most and it’s where I call home and it’s where my heart is, so I don’t think I can walk away anytime soon.
What do you hope that military men and women take away from this film when they have a chance to see it?
Honesty, the brutal honesty of it. I hope they realize our commitment to keeping it real, the tactics and like the lingo and all that. The commitment to the actual soldiering that is involved in the movie. I hope they’re brought on a ride that certainly they respect.
I believe that if service men and women watch this with civilian men and women, after the movie the civilian men and women will certainly have a different perspective of the life of a service man and women. That’s what I hope for the most.
Director Doug Liman
Doug Liman on set with John Cena
“The Wall” very much reminded me of early 50’s post-World War II indie films, movies shot with a limited budget that are more about the personalities in the story than they were the setting or the epic presentation.
I’m glad you picked up on that because I really was thinking about World War II stories when I was making The Wall and the simple moral clarity of the stories. That’s the experience of a soldier in the field. You know there’s no moral ambiguity. Someone is shooting at you. There’s a real clarity of survival and triumph of good over evil that you see in World War II. I really wanted to do a story that showed the simple bravery and valor and resilience of the American soldier under fire.
I’m used to creating kind of more crazy situations of spies with amnesia for the Bourne franchise or Tom Cruise having to relive the day and time travel and aliens in Edge of Tomorrow. With The Wall, I was able to tell a story that’s equally powerful. I feel like the more you test the character, the more you learn about them and the more you celebrate them. This time, I didn’t need to make up things with time travel and aliens and amnesia. The actual experiences of an American soldier under fire has all of those heroic elements in spades.
Another thing that really struck me is how tight the focus is. It’s almost as if you could have staged this as a play. You have two characters onscreen and it’s about what happens to these two guys.
But a play wouldn’t give you the visceral spirit of being trapped behind that wall by an Iraqi sniper. In The Wall and my other movies, I try to put the audience on the roller coaster ride. Not just watching the roller coaster, but the experience of being on the roller coaster itself.I wanted the audience to have the visceral experience of being pinned down by an Iraqi sniper.
Bullets travel faster than the speed of sound, the sound of the bullet will get there three seconds after you’re already dead. How do you survive that and how do you overcome that?
My films tend to have superheroes in them. Jason Bourne is a version of a superhero. Grounded, but he’s a superhero. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are superheroes of sorts in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Tom Cruise’s character actually had super powers in Edge of Tomorrow.
In The Wall, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is also a super hero when you think about. He’s like Iron Man. What the average American soldier brings into combat, not just the knowledge of how to survive and the training, all the gear that’s on their bodies and all of those different pockets to deal with so many different situations. Just when you think Aaron Taylor-Johnson is done for, he’s got another pocket and another thing he can pull out.
I thought, wow, this is absolutely another superhero film. It’s my most grounded superhero, the American soldier in combat. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to be in combat. As a filmmaker, I try to put myself in as many different situations as possible to experience things firsthand so that I can bring it to the screen. I’ve traveled into the DRC in the Congo and I’ve traveled into conflict zones so that when I make a film like The Wall I can try to understand the situation.
I was in Baghdad during the war filming Fair Game, so I have just a teeniest experience with war. The real power of The Wall comes from the fact that dozens of soldiers and veterans and Gold Star Wives opened up their homes and their hearts and their photographs and told their stories to us, to help us make their most accurate and exciting movie we could.
How did this movie come to be?
Amazon had run a contest and selected the script. I actually read it as a writing sample for another film I was working on, to see if I wanted to hire Dwain Worrell. I immediately fell in love with The Wallscript, so much so that I honestly can’t remember what movie I was working on that I hired Dwain to rewrite. The script was so riveting and contained so many elements that I love in a movie and did it with such simplicity.
Amazon is not your traditional movie studio. It’s run by two filmmakers, Ted Hope and Bob Berney. They come from the world of independent film and they just want to make really good movies. And they’re smart about it. You know we made the film for a number that almost certainly guarantees they’ll make their money back.
You’re the first director to really try to use John Cena as an actor and not just an action figure.
John is extraordinary. He’s personally extraordinary in The Wall. I’ve made a career of taking actors and giving them shots, whether it’s putting Vince Vaughn in his first film in Swingers or giving Matt Damon his first shot of being an action hero in Bourne Identity or putting Angelina Jolie in a comedy for the first time in her life in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. I’ve shown people a new side of Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow. You’ve never seen him play a coward before.
I love doing that. I don’t have any magic to it. It’s not like I’m turning these people into actors. They have the talent. I just feel honored and lucky that I happen to be the person there at the right time to cast them. That sure is the case with John Cena.
I thought part of the excitement of the movie would come from the actor with bigger name, which John Cena has, being in the role I put him in. That would put extra pressure down on Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character because you’re counting on John Cena to save the day because he’s such a physical guy and he has such a big personality.
While John was shooting our film, he was hosting the ESPYs, he was wrestling all over. He traveled to Asia and he traveled to the Middle East and to the Midwest in the middle of shooting our movie. He is by far the hardest working man in Hollywood.
Nothing about shooting The Wall was easy. We had military advisors like Nick Irving on our set. He was an Army Ranger who has been to Iraq and found that the conditions on our set matched Iraq’s temperature and heat and wind.
John Cena never faltered. Even though he’d come off an airplane from someplace far away, he went right to work. That’s good for his character, because the soldiers aren’t out there having enjoyed a good night’s rest. They’re in sweltering conditions, they’re not getting a lot of sleep, they’ve been up for 24 hours.
It all actually worked together. We shot the film very quickly and under the kind of pressure, where you can’t make a mistake. Well, if you’re in this kind of combat, you really can’t make a mistake. One mistake is lethal. You don’t get a second chance. And I shot the movie under conditions where I wouldn’t get a second chance. I had to get it right.
Does shooting on that tight a budget change the way you work?
It makes me sharper. The more my back is against the wall, no pun intended, the sharper I am. I think it brings out the best in me. And it was totally appropriate for this movie. I think it shows up onscreen. When I shot Bourne Identity, a lot of the scenes were stolen, we didn’t have permission to shoot in several of the locations. There’s kind of a frantic energy in the photography because I’m literally worried I’m gonna get caught. You need that line as a filmmaker.
Jason Bourne is worried he’s gonna get caught, so that energy comes through onscreen. The conditions under which The Wall was made end up onscreen in a kind of visceral way. You can’t necessarily put your finger on it, but it just feels a little more intense and a little bit more exciting.
You’ve got an outstanding American accent in “The Wall” and you had a great one in “Nocturnal Animals.” How did an English actor get so good at sounding American?
I guess that would be going back to my mom, really. My mom had a very good ear for accents and voices and would mimic people and I think I just carried on doing it.
But there are professionals that you go to, dialect coaches. You spend time with them and you perfect it and you hone in. I’d listen to documentaries, real people from those areas and you go and hang out in those areas. It’s really just mimicking.
Well, there’s mimicry and then there’s inhabiting the mindset. You really seem to have this ability to key in on something about the rural American personality.
Thank you. We had a couple of months prior to making the movie where I could research and hang out with the real guys in the military. There were a few Marines I spent some time with, war vets, like Jacob Schick, who is part of the 22Kill Foundation.
I went to the top sniper school in the country in Arkansas at Fort Chaffee and spent time with the instructors and the lads who were actually taking their sniper course. When I hung out on the shooting range, I’d hear them. And they’re from all across the board. You get a lot of southern guys there, but you get a lot of guys from all sorts of states. They have mannerisms and you pick up some bad habits, like chewing tobacco.You work out and banter and develop camaraderie. So yeah, I listen, observe, and take in what I can.
In “The Wall,” there are basically two characters onscreen for almost the entire film. You’re in every scene, so that seems like a huge weight to carry.
It was daunting, very daunting. There’s a lot of pressure, but I think that was ultimately why I was interested. It’s that challenge and that obstacle that I enjoy. But you’re in good hands with Doug Liman, a great filmmaker who has a strong vision and he makes a secure set and you feel safe. But I would turn up as prepared as I could possibly be to not let the crew down. You’re there to do a good job, but also do service to that character and the military and hope that it can translate.
You spend a lot of the film acting against a voice on a radio. How did you do that? Were you working with the actor who performs the sniper? Or were you talking to yourself?
Sometimes we’d have it actually rigged up to a radio transmitter and someone on the other end. That didn’t always work and sometimes it would just be the director shouting back the lines, responding to what I was saying and I’d respond to him.
There were times when I didn’t have anyone talking on the other side of the earpiece and it was just me responding to myself or me talking to myself in my head. You know you can’t always rely on everything working.
Of course, anyone who’s been in the field knows that. You’ve got a huge amount of business in this movie with the gear. You seem to be very familiar and comfortable with everything that you’re using throughout the film. What kind of training did you go through to prepare for that?
I spent some time on a shooting range and was familiar with the rifles I was using. Our film is set in 2009 in our film, so unfortunately we’re dealing with M11, Mk.11 and a few other things rather than the big bad boys like the .50 cals and the Barrett Rifles.
We’d have fun with the great new technology on the shooting range and then we’d have to play around with the stuff that was more period and current to that time. So I had to get familiarized with everything. I also wanted to know everything that I was carrying in my pockets and in my bag. I need to know everything.
Doug really cared about that sort of stuff too. Even though it was a fictional story, we wanted to have it be authentic. We needed to have everything looking sharp and the real guys are doing it in a warzone in the heat of everything and in chaos. You go back to that intense training that they’ve had over a couple of years. They go into that fight or flight mode and do what they do best, so we needed to have that feeling.
Obviously, opposing snipers aren’t in the habit of taunting each other over the radio. How does that fictional element square with the realistic detail you were portraying?
I think that’s the beauty of story. Dwain Worrell, the screenwriter, based the Iraqi sniper off of a real person called Jubah, who had a lot of confirmed kills against the American military and was never easy to track down. He’d always escaped somehow. He was a really great shot, clearly, and from a very far out distance.
That gave the Dwain the idea of giving the sniper an element of camouflage that was imitating the American voice and accent. That’s why the ending is what the ending is. It’s this vicious circle of what this guy was capable of. And it’s just interesting, it’s guerrilla warfare, it’s different tactics, it’s different styles.
We had Nick Irving on set as our consultant. He was a Ranger who worked with special services and even with some Navy Seal teams. He’s come across the most insane kind of things. I’m sure that stuff like we portray in the film has been attempted. It’s fiction, but we present everything else around it in the most authentic, realistic way possible.
The great thing about his character is that he’s persistent and doesn’t give up. Neither side gives up. And that’s kind of the portrait of what war is. You know you decide giving up and they’re fighting for what they believe in.
A lot of movies present Special Forces guys as unstoppable superheroes. In this case, the Americans are pinned down and, in a way, they’re the underdogs.
This movie might not have the satisfying outcome that we all went at the end, but I think what Doug Liman went for was there was that these men show no sign of weakness, there was only the strength and the heroism and the power is in their mindset of just never giving up.
I hope it’s not offensive. It shouldn’t come across as diminishing or offensive to the military, American military, because it really shows the camaraderie, the bravery, the persistence, and the never giving up mentality.
All those movies have a lot of pace, a lot of energy, a lot of action. This is the opposite and I think that it will speak in another language. It speaks in another way. It’s very drawn out, thoughtful time-consuming kind of movie with tension and suspense.
For snipers, 75, maybe 80 percent of their job is not to be a great shot. They get in, get the information, and get out with no one ever noticing they were there. They’re qualified to take an incredible shot, but it’s very tedious. They spend a lot of long hours and days waiting out in areas accumulating information. And then they get to go back and use that detail.