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About The Production
Only in America: The Production Begins

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.

Davison walks us through their meeting: "Gary proceeded to tell me the basics of Barry's story, as well as the beats of his life adventure. Barry wasn't just a drug smuggler, but a family man who was deeply in love with his wife while leading a double life." He pauses. "Now that was a story I wanted to tell."

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 MedellĂ­n 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 naive 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."

Feds and Narco-Terrorists: Casting the Film

To portray Lucy Seal, who was married to a rascal bad guy that she couldn't help but love, the filmmakers turned to performer Sarah Wright Olsen, who has recently starred in Walk of Shame and TV's Marry Me. The Southern-born actress hails from rural Kentucky and understood Lucy's character; she was a complete natural in crafting the perfect accent. Of her casting, Roth commends: "Sarah has completely inhabited this role. She's funny, warm and genuine, and even from our early rehearsals she made us laugh and cry in one scene."

Liman is known for his strong female characters, offering: "In my films, they tend to be stronger than the male ones." Wanting to challenge himself, he begins the story with a character who initially could be easily dismissed as a stock one. Over the course of the trials and tribulations of the Seal marriage, you see just what Lucy is made of, and how far she'll go to protect her family.

When he met Wright Olsen, he was instantly impressed by her spirit, background and talent. "I thought, 'This is just the Southern attitude I want in the movie and for this character,'" recalls Liman. "Sarah was playing against the biggest movie star in the world, and even from the place where I wanted her character to start, she brought the kind of strength I needed and holds the screen; it's just incredible."

The Seals' marriage is passionate, but practical. When the family's income skyrockets, the practical Lucy is immediately suspicious of what Barry's been up to, and tells him it needs to stop.

Wright Olsen shares a bit about her approach to roles that truly speak to her: "When I am passionate about a script, I get so excited to share the love and joy that I feel for the character. It was fascinating to hear Doug and Tom's take on what they saw for Lucy, and where the story was going. Barry is deeply in love with Lucy, and she is the heartbeat of their relationship." She pauses. "She kept the family together through good times and bad."

This leads Wright Olsen into one of her favorite scenes, just after the Seals suddenly move in the middle of the night from Louisiana to Arkansas. "Lucy is standing in this empty house, confused and frustrated. She lays into Barry about the simple things she wants: a stove, a refrigerator, beds for the children. In that moment you see she's not asking for diamonds, gold or a luxurious life. She wants the things she needs to provide for her kids; it's a very important moment for their relationship."

Domhnall Gleeson, who plays CIA operative Monty Schafer, shows another side of the acting gifts he's displayed in films from Unbroken and About Time to Ex Machina. Schafer sees Seal as his possible ticket to promotion and beyond, and plays him for what he's worth. Liman loved the idea of creating an entirely unexpected but powerful adversary for Seal, and found Gleeson was the perfect antagonist. "I didn't want to do that in the cliché way, with a CIA handler-slash antagonist, surrounded by computer screens and an army of people," the director offers. "I thought, 'What if your adversary in the CIA is just in a cubicle, will seize any opportunity and not let anything get in his way?' Domhnall did an amazing job and, from a cubicle, is a force to be reckoned with."

As Gleeson researched his role and prepared for production to begin, the actor read several autobiographical books by CIA operatives. "I found the script to be such an easy read. It had a playful tone, and the story was outrageous and suspenseful. There's a dog-eat-dog feeling to this whole film, which I liked. I think it's truer than we care to admit about the way that countries run, and the way that the world works."

One of the most unexpected days of production was when Gleeson found himself way up in the skies. "Doug and Tom took me up in one of the small planes, and did a maneuver to zero gravity," he reveals. "Then they swapped pilot seats, and Tom turned the plane upside down while Doug shot it on his iPad. It was incredibly fun. Tom is a force of nature and, paired with Doug, they have created their own way of working-a shorthand that, no matter how chaotic, works."

Of his principal costars, Cruise raves: "Sarah is incredible as Barry's wife; she's just extraordinary. And Domhnall plays such an original character-the kind we see in all of Doug's films-ones that have this authenticity on screen. With Bourne and Mr. and Mrs. Smith to Swingers, he's so invested in the world that he creates and in these characters they have a unique humanity to them."

The Equalizer and All Eyez on Me's E. Roger Mitchell, who plays FBI special agent McCall, enjoyed his time with this ensemble cast and crew. "Tom and Doug finish each other's sentences," he says. "They are open to doing whatever works to get it right. They have a trust between them that is palpable."

Jesse Plemons, of Bridge of Spies and TV's Fargo, plays Mena's Sheriff Downing, who befriends Barry when he moves to the town with a population of 900 people. Actress Lola Kirke plays his wife. The performers created their own back story for their characters, crafting they were high school sweethearts.

Kirke explains: "Barry's story is summed up in the Oscar Wilde quote, 'There are only two tragedies in life: One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.'"

The enigmatic Caleb Landry Jones was cast as JB, younger brother of Lucy Seal, who sees Barry's new opportunities as a potential windfall for himself. To get into his mulleted character, Jones immersed himself in '80s rock and channeled Alice Cooper and Andrew Dice Clay. Wright Olsen shares her thoughts on her fellow performer's talents: "Caleb has the gift of being able to be sweet and a troublemaker at the same time, like he could snap at any moment."

The supporting cast of American Made includes Alejandro Edda as Jorge Ochoa, Benito Martinez as James Rangel, Mauricio Mejia as Pablo Escobar and Jayma Mays as attorney Dana Sibota. Those who help Barry with his shipments include JAYSON WARNER SMITH as Bill Cooper, MARK MCCULLOUGH as Pete, ROBERT KINTER and STANTON KOWALYCHK as two of Barry's Snowbirds, and EMILIO SIERRA as Hector.

Filming in Georgia: Design and Locations

American Made follows the Seal family from the late 1970s through 1986, and we watch as their wealth amasses during the decade. One of the most pivotal years for them during this period was in 1981, when they pulled up stakes in the middle of the night and moved from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Mena, Arkansas. The CIA helped Barry to create a home base for his operations, far from the prying eyes of state or federal authorities.

With a month of prep and a lot of moviemaking magic, production designer Dan Weil and his art department team transformed the little town of Ball Ground, Georgia, into Mena, circa '81.

The American Made cast and crew of 300-plus descended on Ball Ground for five weeks of their shooting schedule. This small community of 1,900 residents is found in Cherokee County, approximately an hour's drive north of metro Atlanta. With the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains as its unforgettable backdrop, the production shot in downtown Ball Ground, the Cherokee County Airport and also at a nearby house in Cumming, Georgia.

When Liman saw the amazingly preserved downtown Ball Ground Main Street, he knew it was the perfect community to re-create 1981 Mena. The antique and curiosity shops, as well as a couple of cafes, spanned the mile stretch of Gilmer Ferry Road.

The production worked closely with city officials and came up with a plan to change their quaint main street from semi-modern to retro. To complete this transformation, it took five months from the initial phone call to city officials to the first day of shooting. The Ball Ground community was on fire with enthusiasm. Locals sold T-shirts that said "Cruisin' into Ball Ground" and "Ball Ground: the Movie Capital of the World" as the excitement heightened for filming to begin.

To give the streets an older look, sand was spread on the sidewalks. Modern landscaping and signage were removed and replaced with period fare. The story called for the construction of several banks, each one more retro than the last. To accomplish this, Weil took existing storefronts, some of them derelict, and gave them a total facelift.

One of the most innovative additions to the Ball Ground downtown area was 26 pay phones, installed for scenes where Seal makes and receives calls he cannot be on at home. The production searched far and wide for these vintage beauties, and it took quite a while to find ones in nearly pristine condition. Roth explains the rationale: "The real Barry Seal actually used pay phones this way. Apparently, he would walk around with a camera bag filled with quarters."

For the Polk County office in which Sheriff Downing works, the decision was made to place him in a mobile home. Sure enough, in the middle of downtown, just off the train tracks, was a retro trailer-the outside complete with a stoop and a proudly displayed American flag.

Inside Downing's trailer was a set dressed with all things '80s. An IBM electric typewriter, a Channel Master AM/FM radio and the obligatory landline phone, complete with curly cord. A large black-and-white picture of the actual downtown Mena, circa 1980s, graced the walls.

Close by Downing's trailer, just off the Ball Ground main drag on Mound Street, was the Downing interior home set. The set dressing was a flashback to simpler technological times, and audiences will spot an Intellivision-complete with Atari "Centipede," 8-track tape player and a Hot Wheels track for the children.

Also in Ball Ground, Weil's team crafted several versions of Barry's mock businesses, the one that he used to cover up his illicit activities. Storefronts were built for Royale Global, Royale Sports, Royale Television and Royale Liquor, each one more convincing than the last.

Of the layout, Roth reflects: "It feels like small-town Americana, very Norman Rockwell-esque. You would never think, in your wildest dreams, that contras would be training, and drugs and arms would be shipping out of this sleepy little town."

An extra bonus in the Ball Ground area was the forest, which doubled for the Ouachita mountain range, where the contras' training occurred.

In Ball Ground, the Cherokee Airport was also a main shooting destination for American Made, which included the Rich Mountain Aviation hangar set, where Barry-along with his Snowbird pilot team-would do runs to and from Central and South America. This set was dressed complete with the requisite pool table, pinball machine, foosball table, Ms. Pac-Man machine, Rubik's cube, boom boxes and pin-up posters of '80s models-big hair and all. The signage for Rich Mountain Aviation was modeled after an actual sign seen from a low-resolution documentary about Seal.

All of these playful sign-of-the-times props and set dressings were contradictory to the hardcore business practices that were happening at the hangar. In full view, one can also see crates of AK-47s and bundles of kilos of cocaine.

Cherokee Airport also doubled for the Los Brasiles Airport tarmac in Managua, Nicaragua, where the famous surveillance pictures were taken of Jorge Ochoa and Frederico Vaughan with Seal.

Other Ball Ground locations included the Faith Baptist Church, for key interior and exterior scenes, and the Seal family home, which was reimagined in Cumming.

The Seal family home was painted a drab green hue when the family moved in; and as Barry's income increased, so did the house renovations. Over the course of one round-the-clock weekend, Weil's crew-with massive collaboration from the art department team-transformed the residence. What was once mundane became pink with white trim, complete with manicured gardens, a mini-golf course, audacious statues, terracotta roof and a stable for the kids' pets.

Before Seal began making major cash, he and his family lived in a modest home in Baton Rouge. The interior and exterior scenes for this home were shot in Roswell, Georgia, on Brickleberry Court-and hosted the first day of photography that kicked off the 39 days of shooting in Georgia.

Inside the house, the draping orange curtains, lacquered paneling, wallpapered walls and brick fireplace made an appropriate background for the leather couches, white plastic dinette set and hanging ferns of the era. In the Seals' Baton Rouge bedroom, a burgundy, satin canopied bed awaits. Let's also not forget the Zenith tube television that was top-of-the-line in its day.

Davison explains the production's commitment to detail: "There's a nostalgia for this era. As many items are still familiar to us, the late '70s and early '80s have an appeal. At the same time, they feel completely disconnected from our reality today."

Additional Georgia Locales

After the cast and crew came back from Ball Ground, they continued shooting all over Atlanta. One of Georgia Tech's Academy of Medicine buildings doubled for the White House sets, including the West Wing. Evans Fine Foods in Decatur became the interior of the Waffle House, which was paired with the exterior of the Waffle House set in Norcross.

Seal's motel room set was at the Cheshire Motor Inn, while the airport bicentennial bar was at the Havana Club on Piedmont Road NE, along with the Miami jewelry store set at Brown & Co. Jewelers on Peachtree Road NE, both in Atlanta.

The crew also ventured an hour east of Atlanta to Madison to showcase the beautifully traditional Madison Courthouse building, which was built in 1905. There, the filmmakers utilized views of both the interior and exterior architecture.

At the Atlanta airport, for a select few flying scenes, a flight simulator at the Delta Flight Museum was used. It is the only simulator open to the public in the U.S., and many pilots head from flying in these simulators to piloting actual aircraft with passengers. The interiors and exteriors in these montages were shot in a 42-year-old grounded DC-10 aircraft, which was also housed at the flight museum.

American Made's stage work was shot on location in Norcross, at the Atlanta Media complex. Some of the renovated Seal home interiors scenes, including a Christmas morning scene with the family, were shot at a home on Rembrandt Street in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, where Liman, Cruise and Spinelli shared their on-location home. This proved to be possibly the shortest commute to work for a director and star in history.

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