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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 clichĂ© 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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