A small story that affected a global event.
In 2012, Quadrant Pictures’ producer Doug Davison was searching for ideas to develop when he met with then relatively unknown writer Gary Spinelli. After a quick introduction and a few pitches, nothing seemed like a fit. Then, just as Spinelli was leaving, he mentioned one more concept upon which he had been working. The writer had recently seen Argo, which had piqued his interest in other untold CIA scandals of the era. After a bit of research on key players of the time, he had come across a man called Barry Seal, a fascinating character in recent American history—one whose devilish swagger and zest for life affected all he met.
In Universal Pictures’ American Made, Tom Cruise reunites with his Edge of Tomorrow director, Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), in this international escapade based on the outrageous (and real) exploits of a hustler and pilot unexpectedly recruited by the CIA to run one of the biggest covert operations in U.S. history. From a screenplay by Gary Spinelli (Stash House)
Spinelli was fascinated by the fact that Seal’s life in the late ’70s and early-to-mid ’80s allowed him to get away with illegal exploits for years—ones that would be impossible today. Our 24-hour news cycle makes for a much more transparent world than the one the pilot inhabited, and we live our conspiracies as they unfold. “Goodfellas is one of my favorite movies, and I was on the hunt to find a version of that when I found my American Made story. I was looking for a little hidden piece of history,” he offers. “A small story that affected a global event, and I came across Barry in Mena, Arkansas.”
For the next six months, Davison and Spinelli researched all things Seal. As the two men dug deeper and uncovered the cross-connecting layers of the pilot’s life and times, they were surprised at how intricately involved Seal was in various facets of the U.S. government, as well as his double dealings with the Colombians and the Medellín Cartel. In sum, Seal had an inordinate role in a scandal that shadowed Ronald Reagan’s eight years in office.
Davison vividly remembers the Iran-contra efforts as a fascinating and complex time in U.S. history. The producer states: “The aspect of Barry’s story that really got to me was how he was working for our government to help fund the Contra war effort.”
Seal seized opportunities presented to him—however potentially illegal they appeared—to make money, lead an adrenaline-fueled life and, on one level, “help” the government accomplish its fluid mission of arming Nicaraguan freedom fighters against the Sandinistas. As he wrote, Spinelli found in his elevated protagonist a cinematic character who—depending upon who is asked—was a rascal, a simple opportunist, a drug runner, an arms merchant or a complex character motivated by a litany of other reasons. Still, Seal appears as such an amiable family man—and seemingly so naïve about his exploits—that it’s impossible not to like him.
After the research stage of developing American Made, Spinelli took several months and reworked the script. In turn, Davison gave it to his friend, producer Kim Roth, then head of production at Imagine, who also fell in love with this story, and came on board the project alongside Imagine’s Academy Award®-winning producer Brian Grazer, who was similarly intrigued by Barry’s life and times. Grazer has built his body of work with critical and commercial success sharing the tales of complex characters in films from American Gangster and 8 Mile to A Beautiful Mind. With the simple Southern pilot, he’d found Imagine’s next antihero.
Roth’s first impression of the script was how audacious and larger than life Seal was. She reflects: “Barry could walk into any room, anywhere, and win everybody over.” Discussing her collaborators, she raves: “Gary has lived this story since he first went online and looked up ‘biggest CIA scandals’ and has been invaluable to this process. He was on set every day working with Tom and Doug, tweaking and creating.”
The Tom and Doug of whom Roth speaks are none other than global superstar Tom Cruise and blockbuster director Doug Liman, who last collaborated on Edge of Tomorrow and were looking for their next project together. When Grazer sent Liman and Cruise the script for consideration, they knew they’d hit upon their ideal next chapter.
Naturally, the tone began to change as Cruise, Liman and producers imagined what the film would look like with their imprint. Says Davison: “When Tom and Doug joined the project, the storytelling shifted from a biopic to a more comedic tone, a slice-of-life spin on Barry’s choices. The teaming of Tom and Doug was perfect for this story.”
Grazer has long been a fan of those who buck the system, and knew Liman was just the filmmaker for the big job ahead. The producer reflects: “What’s so fascinating about Doug is that his work is impossible to pigeonhole. Whereas some directors have a narrow comfort zone, a specific wheelhouse or genre in which they work, Doug reminded me of Barry in the sense that he is an authority-challenging risk-taker who refuses to do the same thing twice. We knew he would be the ideal person to bring Gary’s brilliant screenplay to life, and that if we were fortunate enough to get Tom to rejoin him and tackle the lead role, they’d guarantee that American Made would become a riveting film that’s equal parts comedy, drama and intrigue.”
Liman, who refers to the film as “a fun lie based on a true story,” offers that he has long appreciated stories of improbable heroes working against the system. “Barry Seal took the government, and our country, for an unbelievable ride,” reveals the filmmaker. “Interpreting his story has the makings for an entertaining film that is equal parts satire, suspense and comedy—and always surprising.”
His producers found they weren’t the only ones to have deep fascination with how secret ops are accomplished at this level. As the director’s father, Arthur L. Liman, was the chief counsel for the Senate investigation into the Iran-contra affair—and had actually questioned Oliver North during the hearings—his helming the film makes this story that much more personal. Liman felt the connection to these memories as he developed and shot American Made, and truly appreciated his father’s discussion about the absurdity of the then-government’s tactics.
Liman loved the fact that, while so many films have been made about people being run over by the government, Seal’s story was one of someone “who screwed over the White House. Barry is a zealot-like character who really did cross paths with so many household names from the ’80s—ranging from Ronald Reagan and Manuel Noriega to Bill Clinton and Oliver North.”
The quintessential American success story, Seal was recruited for surveillance activities on communist activities in Central America, and ultimately to deliver weapons to rebels in that area who were fighting communists. The U.S. war on drugs and the war on communism had two fronts, and Seal knew them equally well. “He was a real opportunist, and he had an empty airplane on the way back,” continues the director. “If it absolutely had to be there overnight and it was illegal, Barry Seal was your guy. Since he was conducting illegal operations with the CIA’s help, he could get in and out of the country undetected. Well, there was no point flying back with an empty airplane, so Barry thought he might as well bring drugs back with it. So he ended up working for both the U.S. government and for the Colombian drug cartel at the same time, and unbeknownst to the other. He played both sides, and became fabulously wealthy while he was doing it. Still, it was never about the money for Barry. It was about the excitement, the challenge and all about the flying.”
Seal’s tale is so impossible to believe that it requires the satiric, ironic and often tragically funny tone and P.O.V. that American Made adopts. Roth notes: “Not only is Doug such a great filmmaker and storyteller, he wanted to tell a movie about this period for some time now. Doug found there were so many amusing stories and escapades that could be told from Barry’s point of view, it clicked for him.”
Pilots themselves, Cruise and Liman gravitated toward the human elements in Barry’s life, as Barry tries desperately to keep a normal family in the midst of challenging choices. He is crazy about his wife, Lucy, and will do whatever it takes to keep her and their kids happy. Their marriage is passionate, but practical. Of course, these characters are inspired by members of the Seal family; but, just like with any film, the team would take a great deal of creative license in telling the story.
Cruise admits that he gravitated toward this wild story because he’d never met a character like this one. He shares: “Mark Twain’s one of my favorite writers, and I think he informed the tone of Gary’s writing. Barry Seal lived in a very unique time that we’ll never have again in aviation, or in history. He had this incredibly adventurous life, and one that is just beyond belief. He was a character walking through history. It was just too outrageous to believe, and in this day and age, it’s something that will never happen again.”
Not only was Cruise fascinated by Seal’s pioneering spirit, but also how dichotomous this man was. “Barry was a great pilot, and a man who loved his family,” he states. “Still, he’s very much an antihero who wanted an adventurous life. I don’t condone the things he did, but you can’t help but see that he had this wish fulfillment. He was someone who lived beyond the rules in a way that was unique to that time period in aviation. Today, everything’s very controlled and corporate, and air spaces are contained. The things that he and his other pilots were able to do were outrageous.”
As the production unfolded, the producers were gobsmacked by the efforts of their star and director. Raves Roth: “The teaming of Doug and Tom is extraordinary, and unlike anything I have ever seen before. This work is also not for the faint of heart. They are tireless and tenacious in their work ethic, and it’s been so inspiring.”
Davison agrees with Roth, commending: “The energy between Tom and Doug is amazing. It’s fun and moves very fast. Doug said from the beginning he wanted this movie experience for the crew working on it to be an adventure, and he delivered.”
So intimately involved with the production were Cruise and Liman, that Spinelli shared a house with them while the production was on location in Georgia (they even had a chore chart to handle housekeeping duties). The trio would discuss plot points and story beats well into the morning, then be up at the crack of dawn to begin production again. As Liman puts it, “It was a film-school-boot-camp teamwork experience unlike any I’ve ever had.”
“Doug and Tom try to make things better and never settle,” gives Spinelli. “I have always felt like part of their team, as the three of us were always working toward the same goal: to make the best movie we possibly could.”
The final piece of the puzzle would come when Cross Creek Pictures’ principal Tyler Thompson and former Cross Creek executive Brian Oliver, of Black Swan, Everest and Black Mass fame, joined the production as producers and financiers. Cross Creek, which has an output deal with Universal Pictures, was just as fascinated by the nature of Baton Rouge native Seal.
Thompson appreciated just how the team was crafting a comic, irreverent and entertaining film with substance: “Gary and Doug did such a great job at capturing the essence of who Barry Seal was, and we just wanted to be a part of it. We have a lot of Louisiana roots and, considering that we know people who actually knew Barry, it excited us about the project. We ended up coming to terms on it.”
Over the course of development, Roth met with Debbie Seal, Barry’s widow, to get her blessing on the film and hear her thoughts and recollections on their life together. Graciously, Mrs. Seal shared with Roth many photos and home videos of Barry and their family over the years. It was obvious in this meeting that he was still the love of Debbie’s life. Says Roth: “We have always addressed the tone being in awe of Barry and not bringing a lot of judgment or morality to his story.”
For Cruise, this longtime labor of love wouldn’t have been possible without the support of occasional-roommates Spinelli and Liman. Of his director, he reflects: “Doug brings a unique humanity to his films. He comes up with ideas as we’re working, and the friendship that we have allows us to trust one another—where we’re willing to try anything. We push each other, and he’s someone who wants to make great films and to entertain an audience.
“I also don’t make a movie just to make a movie,” Cruise, who does all of his own flying in the movie, continues. “What interests me is the passion of cinema and storytelling, that’s when it gets very exciting. It’s not just a job; I love this too much and want to push myself and surround myself with people who have that same sensibility and sense of exploration to make movies.”