Director Doug Liman tells Gill Pringle how he convinced Tom Cruise to play anti-hero Barry Seal – and moon for the camera – in American Made.

Barry Seal’s extraordinary life is like a made-for-Hollywood story wrapped up in a bow. Assassinated in 1988, this former TWA pilot became a CIA undercover agent turned drug smuggler, flew AK-47s to Fidel Castro in Cuba, partied with Pablo Escobar in Colombia, and armed the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Transporting hundreds of pounds of cocaine to the US every week, he amassed a US$50 million fortune, buying up land in the heavily forested town of Mena in Arkansas where he literally buried his cash.

While Nancy Reagan urged the nation to “just say no” to drugs, Seal’s CIA and DEA handlers turned a blind eye to his cocaine enterprise, relying on him to supply precious intel on the cartels and Central American rebels.

Dennis Hopper first portrayed Seal in a little-seen 1991 TV movie, Doublecrossed. Thereafter, the story seemed destined to be buried as one of the more shameful chapters in US history, a scandal that had shadowed Ronald Reagan’s eight-year term in the White House.

But when writer Gary Spinelli rediscovered the story, his script for American Made landed on the desk of Doug Liman, the blockbuster director looking no further than his Edge of Tomorrow star Tom Cruise to introduce a new generation to the outrageous life and times of Barry Seal.

“I just fell in love with Barry,” explains Liman when STACK meets with him in New York. “I am a rule breaker myself and I loved this celebration of a life led outside the normal boundaries.

“I’ve always been drawn to anti-heroes. I don’t know if I could ever make a Tom Hanks movie; a movie where your hero is really just a hero”

“The drug business is decidedly bad but Seal is in the transportation business. He’s like the Federal Express for the underworld and he doesn’t care what is in the back of his airplane, he just cares how heavy it is,” says the director whose previous films include Swingers and Mr & Mrs Smith.

An accomplished pilot in real life, Cruise was heroic in the cockpit of Top Gun, but in American Made, he would return to the flight deck as an anti-hero.

“I’ve always been drawn to anti-heroes. I don’t know if I could ever make a Tom Hanks movie; a movie where your hero is really just a hero,” says Liman.

If it seems that Cruise himself rarely steps outside the hero mold, then Liman begs to differ. “You can’t help but be aware that he is a giant movie star and I sort of timidly suggested to him what about making his character in Edge of Tomorrow a coward. At the time, he’d had some ideas about it that were a little bit more classic Tom Cruise. And I didn’t know if he was going to quit or tell me I was an idiot, but instead he was like, ‘I love that idea’ – and then he went for it.”

Pitching Cruise for American Made was a similar story. “I told Tom: Here is a character for whom morality isn’t even part of his thinking. We came up with this philosophy that if you are walking down the street and see a $100 bill on the sidewalk, you might as well pick it up, otherwise someone else is gonna take it. And that quantifies Barry Seal’s own crass pursuit of opportunity.”

Making reccies into dense Colombian jungle and meeting with Escobar’s sister, Cruise and Liman also hung out with some of Seal’s fellow pilots.

“I just fell in love with Barry. I am a rule breaker myself and I loved this celebration of a life led outside the normal boundaries.”

At his heaviest Seal weighed 280lbs, although Liman didn’t deem it necessary for Cruise to pile on the pounds. “We talked about it but we weren’t interested in making a biopic.”

Nontheless, Cruise did oblige by mooning for the movie – Seal’s signature salute to his family.

“We watched Barry’s videos and he was always mooning. You might say it’s very un-Tom Cruise to moon the camera, I mean he never has a hair out of place, so you don’t know how he is going to react. But he’s game for anything – so he did it.”

And just as Cruise didn’t call for butt double – all the flying scenes are 100 per cent him. “Tom and I are both pilots so we were really interested in leaning on the details of these small planes and their limitations and creating drama and tension from that, in the same way I did with Bourne Identity. I could have had Jason Bourne take a Lamborghini for the high speed chase through Paris, but I was more interested in what would it be like if you were in a sh–tty little car that doesn’t have much acceleration and make that part of the challenge facing your hero,” says Liman, who put Cruise in a propeller plane for American Made.

“These are not like fighter jets. They can’t just point straight up at the sky, they’re going to have trouble clearing trees at the end of runways so Tom and I were more interested in portraying the real details and limitations of that aircraft, creating suspense and action through that,” says the director, recalling how Cruise was at the controls of an Aerostar plane during a flight to a remote airstrip called Aurora Quera.

“I was fast asleep in the back when Tom carried out a ‘parabolic arc’ and I woke up, slamming into the ceiling of the airplane,” he laughs.

Just as Cruise didn’t call for butt double, all the flying scenes are 100 per cent him

On a more somber note, he recalls how two stunt pilots were killed while making the film. “It’s horrible and, as a pilot, I know how dangerous flying small airplanes is. My friends and my family talk about that all the time.”

In some aspects, Seal’s story was one Liman felt compelled to tell, his own father serving as chief counsel to the Iran-Contra senate committee during the Seal scandal.

“A lot of my father’s work influenced my thinking about the CIA and the tone of Bourne Identity was pulled from my father’s work on Iran-Contra rather than Robert Ludlum‘s novel. As deadly serious as my father’s work was, involving the possible impeachment of a very popular President, he was also very amused by the details and would recount some of the stories over dinner, laughing about them.”