Why the new superhero series 'Impulse' needed to rework pivotal sexual-assault scene

Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

When you’re as prolific a director as Doug Liman, it makes sense to always be looking ahead to the next project, rather than back at past efforts. But as the filmmaker behind blockbusters like The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith confesses to Yahoo Entertainment, there’s one title on his résumé that he’s always wanted to revisit: the 2008 globetrotting adventure Jumper starring Hayden Christensen as an ordinary teenager who discovers he possesses extraordinary teleporting abilities. “Of all the movies I’ve made, that’s the one I felt that I didn’t quite get right,” Liman admits. “It was my first time doing something with superpowers, and I was never going to approach superpowers in a conventional way. That’s always something that’s been bugging me, and I wanted to go back into that world.”

The nagging desire to improve on Jumper is the origin story behind Impulse, a new 10-episode series that premiered on YouTube Premium on June 6. Based on the third installment in the Jumper book series written by Steven Gould, Impulse isn’t a direct sequel to the film. Instead, Liman — who directed the pilot and served as executive producer — describes it as a “Doug Liman reboot,” where he’s approaching the same premise from a different point of view. “The only thing they have in common is a superpower,” he emphasizes. “I wanted to take everything I’ve learned about filmmaking and go back to the same arena, doing something that feels more relevant to me.”

Liman points to one specific scene as a way to illustrate the fundamental difference between Jumper and Impulse. In Gould’s book, the teleporting teenage heroine, Henrietta Cole (played by Maddie Hasson) — who prefers going by Henry — makes her first jump after a snowboarding accident leaves her stranded in the face of an oncoming avalanche. “The snowboarding thing is maybe fine for Marvel,” Liman says. “But for Impulse, I wanted to do something dark.” (Speaking of Marvel, it should be noted that Liman was at one point attached to direct the long-gestating Gambit feature that’s supposed to star Channing Tatum as the Cajun X-Man, but parted ways with the movie in 2016.)

Maddie Hasson
Maddie Hasson as Henrietta Cole in the YouTube Premium series Impulse. (Photo: Erin Keating, courtesy YouTube Premium)

The story choice he made is dark indeed. In the pilot, Henry’s powers activate when she’s sexually assaulted by the most popular guy in school, and she jumps away to her bedroom. “We conceived of this idea that her mind would leave the scene and her body would follow. That’s something women have described in their experiences during a sexual assault. They don’t want to be there, and their mind leaves until they get through it.”

Impulse’s pilot script was written two years ago, well before the #MeToo movement shone a harsh spotlight on sexual abuse in and outside of Hollywood. Even at that time, Liman knew that he wanted the series to be driven by women — particularly behind the camera — and he pointedly singles out his female collaborators, including showrunner Lauren LeFranc, for educating him on subjects like sexual assault. “Lauren spoke to me about it with a specificity that no male showrunner I met talked about. She and the rest of the women who came in to work on Impulse were amazing in terms of taking me under their wings.” And they weren’t shy about telling him when he got something wrong. Liman remember LeFrac asking him to reshoot the sequence where Henry is assaulted because he missed crucial aspects of that experience. “Lauren was like, ‘You didn’t get it. You got the mechanics of it, but you didn’t get the horror of it. It’s too watchable, what you shot. We can’t do that — we have to make the audience feel what the character would really be feeling.’”

Liman also credits his star with coaching him through that charged sequence. “Maddie was way more the adult shooting the assault scene. She could see how nervous I was about it, and said, ‘It’s awkward for all of us: Let’s talk about it and just do it.’” That wasn’t the only time that Hasson had a direct impact on Liman’s creative process. The director reveals that he reconceived the entire series when he initially cast the 23-year-old actress as Henry. “I had this idea for a character who really wanted to belong, and whose superpower kept sending her away,” Liman reveals. “When Maddie came in to audition, my producing partner turned to me and said, ‘We should cast her.’ I said, ‘I love her, but she would change the energy of the show! She’s the opposite of who we’ve been talking about.’” Rather than sticking to his original plan, Liman tossed out the pilot script and started from scratch — something he frequently does in his feature film work.

Doug Liman directs the pilot episode of <em>Impulse</em>. (Photo: Erin Keating, courtesy of YouTube Premium)
Doug Liman directs the pilot episode of Impulse. (Photo: Erin Keating, courtesy of YouTube Premium)

Impulse wouldn’t be the first time where I made a decision that forced us to start over,” he says, with a knowing chuckle. “We realized it was a more interesting show if it’s about someone who doesn’t want to be where she is, and gets this superpower that keeps sending her back to her bedroom. That was the eureka moment for me — that this superpower should be a curse.” While Liman has learned to trust those flashes of inspiration over the years, his producers get nervous whenever they hear him talk about eureka moments. “It freaks out the producers and the studio, but I’ve lived through that so many times. With The Bourne Identity my eureka moment happened at the end of the shoot, and I had to go back and shoot a bunch of stuff to retrofit it. So I’m in good shape when it happens five weeks out from shooting. While everyone else is freaking out, I’m kind of in my comfort zone!”

Impulse is currently streaming on YouTube Premium.

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