“The Wall” is a deadly psychological thriller that follows two soldiers pinned down by an Iraqi sniper, with nothing but a crumbling wall between them. Their fight becomes as much a battle of will and wits as it is of lethally accurate marksmanship. Directed by Doug Liman (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Edge of Tomorrow”), “The Wall” stars Aaron Taylor Johnson (“Nocturnal Animals,” “Kick-Ass,” “Savages” “Godzilla,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron”) and WWE star John Cena (“Trainwreck,” “Sisters,” “Daddy’s Home”), and is written by first-time screenwriter Dwain Worrell from his Black List script. “The Wall” is produced by Amazon Studios.
About The Wall
The Wall is screenwriter Dwain Worrell’s first produced screenplay and he wrote it in, of all places, China, where he was teaching English.
“I had this idea kicking around in my head and in my off hours, I finally just wrote it. To me it was always a story about camouflage. It follows an American sniper who is pinned down by a legendary Iraqi marksman but beneath that is a story about people who have something to hide – from each other, from themselves. Much of the plot, the cat and mouse dynamic between them is an outer manifestation of what is going on within the characters as well,” Worrell explains.
Throughout, the American soldier and his Iraqi counterpart banter and parry over the radio and their dialogue reveal commonalities as well as a vast divide. This too stemmed from Worrell’s interest in language.
“I’m personally interested in linguistics. I studied Mandarin at Georgia State and I’m fluent. When you learn a second language and try to think and converse in it, you have a different appreciation of the nuances in communication. Language, I believe, is really a tool that is one of the most profound aspects of human evolution. And the ability to convey a message via words is something that we take for granted. It is really a very powerful thing, and it’s related to writing, which is something I’m very much invested in. So, the idea of language and camouflaging your intention, your purpose is, in language, is something that we do every day, and is something that is reflected in this film,” Worrell says.
Worrell researched his subjects intensively, from the war in Iraq to PTSD, to the daily life of soldiers, speaking to military families, watching “documentary after documentary on snipers, to try to understand the lingo, their mindset.” And then he sent the finished script to Amazon from his post in China “… and they accepted the script in two weeks’ time.”
The themes, setting and characters of The Wall all resonated with filmmaker Doug Liman. Many of Liman’s film and television projects explore large scale conflicts, especially from ground level, as well as high stakes battles of wits. Those themes characterized The Wall but also the script fundamentally stripped war down to its most basic elements and that intrigued Liman.
“’The Wall to me is a taut thriller but it’s also a really interesting exploration of the way war really works – it comes down to strangers murdering each other, in this case an American sniper pinned down by an Iraqi sharpshooter. These people don’t know each other, it’s really about what it takes to survive. It’s my take on a war movie. There’s no politics in the movie because that’s not how war works. I mean, you can have lots of opinions when you’re sitting comfortably in New York City, but when you’re in Iraq and someone’s trying to kill you, that person is the enemy and has to be stopped at all costs, or you’re going to die. So, it has very simple, clean, storytelling reminiscent of my favorite war movies. In the particular case of The Wall, pushing someone to the brink of survival intrigued me and it’s something I’ve always tried to investigate, going back to ‘The Bourne Identity.’ I always put Jason Bourne in a situation where the odds were entirely against him, in the most difficult box to escape from and the challenge and fun then is to figure out how this character actually does escape. It makes for character defining moments,” Liman says.
Liman did add an element to the story not in the original script – another soldier, the American sniper Isaac’s commanding officer Sergeant Matthews, which added a “buddy” aspect to the material and increased the stakes for both men. Ultimately, Isaac is not only fighting for his own life but for the life of Sergeant Matthews and their combined efforts added a new plot layer to the film.
“I liked the story-telling purity of a soldier being pinned to one spot but the idea of a one-actor piece didn’t appeal to me. Too much of a film school exercise. So I kept that premise but added another character, Sergeant Matthews and the story opened up, it became a buddy movie. Their friendship and the subsequent jeopardy make the film more entertaining and nail biting,” Liman says.
As explained by producer David Bartis, “The challenge from the beginning was to take this very small world with two characters and expand it into something that felt both immersive and broader while still fitting into an extremely small budget. Part of the solution was to have Doug work with people with whom he could have a short-hand, people like Mindy Marin in casting, Geoff Mann in Production Design and Ray Angelic as our line producer and Nicole LaLoggia, our post supervisor. All collaborators who knew Doug’s approach to production. At the same time, we needed some new voices in the mix who would be able to adapt to the aggressive shooting schedule and bring in fresh perspectives, people like Roman Vasyanov our Director of Photography and Julia Bloch, our editor.”
Cast first was Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the role of Sergeant Isaac, an Army Ranger who serves as spotter to Matthews but is as good a shot as his boss. When their Iraqi counterpart severely wounds Matthews, Isaac has to use every bit of his training, from his marksmanship to his wits, to defeat his unseen enemy, who has him physically and often mentally pinned down.
“My character supplies all the information to Matthews, it’s the technical side of being a sniper, distance, wind conditions, things like that. And so, the spotting scope is fundamental to him and, as it turns out, to the plot of the film. It’s actually his ex-partner’s scope; his partner who was killed in action. So, Isaac is conflicted about using a rifle and really connected to the scope that belonged to his partner. He is quite traumatized by that situation, is really dealing with PTSD throughout the movie and unravels throughout as layers get chipped away through this cat and mouse game with the Iraqi sniper,” Taylor-Johnson describes.
The distinctive screenplay and the opportunity to work with Doug Liman drew Taylor-Johnson to the project.
“I fell in love with the script and the character instantly. It was written beautifully and the concept seemed extreme and challenging and exciting. And it was Doug Liman directing it! I love his array of work and I knew he would have a connection and perspective and would know how to orchestrate this,” Taylor-Johnson recalls.
John Cena plays Matthews and the WWE superstar/actor/entrepreneur immersed himself in the role. Because of his busy schedule, the production arranged the shoot around him, so that he appeared for a couple days the first week and returned for the last week of filming. During his brief time on set, he inhabited his character completely, enduring punishing heat and wind, caked with grime, some from the make-up department but much that was courtesy of the chaotic daily desert windstorms, all the while refusing to take cover, often, after the sniper fells Matthews, lying face down in the dirt for hours. He was not completely “method” in his approach – a cast and crew favorite, he was a genial raconteur throughout.
“John’s a sweetheart a lovely guy and a real gentleman,” says Taylor-Johnson. “I do not know how he was able to do this movie, he was always doing something, literally flying in and out of the country – he’d go to Japan and then be in NY for a day or two and then back to our set. So, we didn’t have time to bond beforehand but we got along straight away. He’s got such quick timing and humor and I think you feel that between the two characters.”
Cena was attracted to the relationship between the two soldiers, to Doug Liman’s approach to the material, and to directing in general.
“I’m a sucker for a good story and this one is wonderful and so intrinsic to our perception of war and the military who fight it. We always celebrate and decorate our heroes but there are sides to war that are just ugly and manipulative and often it comes down to one person. This is the story about individual choice,” Cena says.
If Cena went all in, it was in part because his director led by example.
Bartis notes, “Liman does some of his best work when he is given a challenge. Knowing we had a small budget, small cast and short shooting schedule turned out to be the right set of challenges for Doug. He loved the challenge of making such a contained world feel compelling enough to last for the length of a film.”
“Doug Liman is amazing. I enjoy people who are creative but also who have made a living based off of a real work ethic and there isn’t a better example than Doug. He has a brilliant eye for what he wants and knows how to get the most substance out of everyone. He’s a workhorse and surrounds himself with like-minded people. The entire crew was so dedicated. I mean, it was not the ideal setting, the dust, the heat, the wind, especially after ten hours of shooting. But everyone knuckled down, it was a group effort but it starts from the top. Doug’s a fantastic leader and I am sure that what I read on paper will be so much more vivid on screen with him at the helm,” Cena says.
Indeed, not only did Liman seem to have every shot edited in his head, he always made time to discuss the scenes in depth, particularly with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, to make sure every moment was truthful. This became particularly important because when the two men are separated, the movie becomes almost a solo act, with Isaac communicating with his unseen enemy over the radio. Many of Taylor-Johnson’s scenes were played with an off-screen voice playing the part of the Iraqi sniper. Occasionally, Liman was that voice.
“Off screen, the other character I reacted to was the sniper and I had to balance my performance. The way Doug structured the scenes, it felt very authentic. It wasn’t someone near camera, it was actually someone talking to me through an earpiece. So, like Isaac I was reacting to what I was seeing and hearing and feeling which was important and difficult at times but interesting. What I thoroughly enjoyed sometimes was when Doug would get on the mic and try to challenge me in unexpected ways,” Taylor-Johnson recalls.
Both Taylor-Johnson and Cena were perfect fits for these roles, as made evident by the film and described by Bartis. “We got lucky with our cast. Aaron and John were both the kind of actors who were willing to do whatever was needed to get the job done. If that meant laying in the blazing hot sand in 108 degrees for hours at a time, they did it without complaint. And then showed up to do it again the next day. Their level of commitment was stunning,” Bartis says.
The Wall shot for 14 days in Lancaster, the high desert of Los Angeles, which Bartis found to be comical because, “After literally looking all over the world for a location, we ended up in our back yard.” He goes on to describe that, “Part of making our location connect to the bigger world and Iraq was to add the pipeline into the set. Part of the pipeline is practical and part of it is digital, but it becomes a looming presence that speaks to our interest in the middle east and the sacrifice in human lives made for oil yet it is never spoken of in story terms, it’s done without comment.”
According to the production’s military advisor Nicholas Irving, this location truly bears an uncanny resemblance to Iraq. He would know – an ex-Army Ranger who has served numerous deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, he earned the nickname The Reaper for his lethal success as a direct-action sniper. John Cena recommended him to the production.
“I’m good friends with John, we worked on ‘American Grit’ together and he knew my background,” Irving says.
Irving spent time with both Cena and Taylor-Johnson and later with the extras portraying soldiers. He taught them the proper way to shoot and move and particularly with Taylor-Johnson, Irving went through the mathematical and mechanical minutia of spotting.
“There are specific ways to manipulate the scope, technical specifics like the ‘crack bang’ theory which is when you hear the snap of the bullet you count the seconds, kind of like thunder and lightning, just a different formula. We went through ballistic formula and calculations, the flight time of bullets, stuff like that. I taught him different sniper positions, low ready and high reedy, how to hold the rifle laying prone, how to carry the weapon, breathing patterns, shooting between heartbeats, stuff like that. We went to a firing range for about four or five hours, went through some pistol drills, precision sniper rifle practice, carbine work and Aaron was taking head shots at 500 meters, which is really good. He’s a natural shot,” Irving says.
Relating his experiences to the men, being back in a “combat zone,” even if it was a movie replica, brought back many memories for Irving.
“John knew my background, Aaron not so much. But telling him all the stories, the knowledge I had, what I would do on certain missions watching him on set, it did bring me back. The plot of The Wall is similar to what happened to me in Chechen, we were pinned down and one of my guys ran in to help us and he ended up getting hit five minutes after he rescued us. But there are good memories too. My guys would have died for me and I would have done the same for them. The camaraderie between Matthews and Isaac is definitely a real thing,” Irving says.
The actual wall that becomes a tenuous buffer between Isaac and his Iraqi assailant was almost a character in itself. The wall is slowly demolished during the movie as Isaac and his foe fire at each other and the production arranged the shooting schedule around its varying stages of destruction.
“We spend an enormous amount of time with Aaron behind that wall. That was really our starting place and Jeff (Mann) and I tried to tell the story visually by building a whole world out of that wall. Because that is what it is to Isaac, it’s the difference for him between life and death,” Liman says.
Production designer Jeff Mann and Liman first worked together on Mr. & Mrs. Smith and have maintained a close relationship professionally and personally ever since. When Liman approached Mann to work on The Wall, Mann had just completed a long project outside of the United States and, as Mann puts it, The Wall seemed like an intriguing antidote.
“The script was fantastic and the schedule was quick, which was a relief after that long project and I was very grateful to work in LA. The challenge was because we spend so much time in one environment, how do we make it visually interesting, how do we serve the story, how do we achieve the scale and scope the movie deserves on a small budget, where do we put our limited resources to achieve all that? The wall was like a living character itself – it had to be aesthetic, authentic, camera and actor friendly. I said to Doug, ‘This wall needs to feel unstable. It’s the thinnest, worst thing to have between you and certain death that you can possibly ask for. It’s one step better than nothing’ But of course for shooting purposes, it couldn’t actually be unstable,” Mann says.
The wall itself had a “character arc” that Mann and his team had to respect, which contributed to the way in which they designed and constructed it.
“It had these stages that it had to go through. This section falls over, and this section gets blown out, and then he digs a hole through it and puts the scope through it. They were all things that we had to do based on a very short schedule and we didn’t have the resources to build multiple breakaway wall sections or have this piece be sculpted out of foam for this moment,” Mann recalls.
Mann did extensive research, referencing buildings in Iraq, Yemen and North Africa primarily, to define terms of what the wall might have been before it became a ruin. Essentially, he gave it a backstory, which then led to the kind of material it was made of and how it was constructed.
“In our minds, it was a complete structure at some point in time and over time it had been robbed for its stone. Who knows what it could’ve been? It could’ve been a small mosque. We added textures to the side that Aaron is hiding out in that hopefully added some history. We didn’t want it to feel like a sheep pen in the middle of nowhere so we added a couple old wooden window frames and a door frame and something to make it feel like there were lives that lived there. Our wall was not made of mud; it was made of stone and it was made of a couple different kinds of stone. The rationale behind it was story driven – how if you pull one stone out below it could be like a keystone where the whole thing collapses whereas if you knock a brick out of a brick wall at the bottom it’s not going over. If you shoot out a brick it’s not going to collapse but if you shoot out a rock that is the lynch pin that lets the whole thing tumble that’s much more of a “what the fuck is going to happen” kind of wall. And in addition to that you get something that is going to have more texture and more story to tell when you look at it. We added all this plaster and chicken wire, all these layers to the interior surface with some paint color and stuff to show maybe this whole aspect of the wall was buried under plaster at one point of time that the stone construction of it was finished more smoothly and more humanely on the interior,” Mann recalls.
Mann and his crew tested as much of the structure as possible prior to principal photography to make sure the wall was safe which impacted the materials used to build it. They created a stand-in wall and rehearsed with it and that became the template for the real thing and provided a guide from when the wall is higher and bigger to its eventual smaller, more exposed iteration. Getting from A to B in that respect required thorough R&D, on a tight budget and schedule.
“We had two or three different kinds of stones we wanted to use. We went on a tech scout with a mockup of a wall, a big wooden version that was flat with different sections that came away, like a big puzzle piece. And each piece in the story where something fell over or got shot was called out as a beat of action that needed to happen. It was enlightening in that we discovered where we had to reinforce a piece, where one might fall over but we didn’t want it to do that as a chunk, we wanted it to break apart, but also it has to be safe for the crew to work around and for Aaron Taylor-Johnson. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pounds of real stones stacked as high as six or seven feet and it would hurt somebody if it fell over on them. There was a lot of wind out there. We ultimately implemented our armchair physics with the help of a consulting stone mason and did a couple of tests at the effects shop of our effects supervisor and friend Brendan O’Dell. We sculpted some fake rocks. We tumbled some rocks and had wires around some of them and ultimately manually pulling to make the thing look like it was peeling like the lip of a wave,” Mann recalls.
The diurnally punishing wind and heat didn’t just affect the wall’s construction, it became an unwelcome but unavoidable member of the entire production. This translated into winds as low as four knots in the morning to has high as 12 in the afternoon, with seemingly no directional pattern. A sandstorm could erupt at any minute and indeed during one scene in which Cena patrolled the area and Taylor-Johnson read off camera lines into his earpiece, a small tornado of sand suddenly enveloped Cena, causing Taylor-Johnson to go off script in genuine surprise as Cena all but disappeared from view. Tellingly, right after the movie finished principal photography, the devastating Sand Fire engulfed the area nearby, propelled by these hot mercurial winds.
This confounding weather actually dovetailed with cinematographer Roman Vasyanov’s visual approach. He opted to use Super 16mm film, which unlike 35 mm, does not need to be threaded but instead easily and quickly pops into the camera, good for a movie shooting in such inhospitable conditions with such a short shooting schedule. But more importantly, “… the script was a gripping drama and I thought the dusty, grainy look super 16 can capture would be fantastic for it and also reminiscent of combat photography. Also, I saw a lot of potential ‘micro photography’ when Aaron’s character gets fatigued or is losing consciousness, I thought it would be nice to use a snorkeling lens, low angle prism with some diopters to create an effect of blurry double exposure. So, I saw these very tight shots but also some super wide shots of the desert, the smoke and the sandstorms,” Vasyanov recounts.
Both Liman and Vasyanov eschewed war film tropes and rather sought to establish a visual style organic to the story, characters and location.
“Roman proposed shooting in 16mm anamorphic from the start. We both knew that in a film like this, in one bleak location, that the cinematography needed to make that world special. We wanted to avoid that shaky camera war movie look, we didn’t want it to be gratuitously stylized. Also, there’s a grain pattern to 16mm anamorphic that isn’t like anything else. The fact that we would be shooting under the harsh sun, that kind of film in general can make the environment more beautiful, more dramatic and leave a little more to the imagination,” Liman says.
Vasyanov points out that all of his camerawork was character-driven, whether it represented an intimate close up, a sniper’s vantage point or a wide establishing shot.
“I’m a big believer that any camerawork has to be motivated by the character. I’m not a fan of, oh let’s go hand held for the sake of moving fast or just shooting more footage. I think the camera should be treated as an actor in a way and reflects the arc of a character in the movie. So, when we just start the movie it’s much more static but as the drama starts increasing, we start getting into more dirty and sort of a more hand held and more kind of crazy look,” Vasyanov explains.
After the Iraqi sniper severely injures Matthews, much of the movie follows Isaac as he tries to outwit his unseen foe. Consequently, Vasyanov and his crew spent a lot of time with Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
“Aaron is an extremely talented actor and my main goal first of all was to give him as much freedom as possible. That’s why, in part, we used available, natural light. His character is behind the wall almost the entire movie so the main idea was try to shoot as many angles as possible. Sometimes, when the whole movie takes place in one place, and you are also very minimal with your coverage, it creates a claustrophobic feeling, which we tried to avoid. We wanted the audience to get lost in a gigantic desert with Isaacs, him and his enemy, in a place where no one else is near. The hope was that everything would connect with Aaron and his scope,” Vasyanov says.
In fact, Taylor-Johnson’s acting choices defined the camerawork, both when Vasyanov filmed the actor omnisciently and when the camera represented his rifle scope POV.
“We started with the blocking to see what Aaron would do as the character and then we’d try to come up with interesting shots and angles to accommodate his behavior. It was never the other way around where we had some shot in mind and we were trying to fit Aaron into that. Aaron’s instincts are incredible and he understands camera very well; he moves around in the frame intuitively; he feels all of the beats in terms of performance. So, all the shots, including of course the POV shots are driven by Aaron’s character, Isaac, who is by himself and no one can help him. The wall is the only thing that can save his life,” Vasyanov says.
The short schedule, lean budget, the punishing weather and decision to use natural light inspired Vasyanov and validated his decision to use film over digital photography.
“I had the same experience on Fury. In harsh conditions where you want to use multiple cameras and you want to achieve the most neutral, most documentary believable look, in my opinion, film is still the best because it captures the reality in the ways our eyes really see. When I am shooting it I only have my light meter, and I rely on it and I don’t have any other people around me, just a small crew – no DITs, no big monitors, no playback. And what I love about that is that it had a 70s or 60s documentary filmmaking spirit on set. And I just love the Super 16 format. I think we are so lucky we are living in an era when right now we can choose our tools depending on what we think is right for the story and definitely Super16 was the best for the story,” Vasyanov comments.