Are they a couple? If they are, did that happen during or after the time they spent making a movie together? And if it is true or was true or might be true, how long will they last?

These are the nosy, rude, intrusive, unfair, wildly speculative, and completely titillating watercooler questions that an ever widening global mob of gossips has been asking about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie ever since they started filming Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a $120 million spy-versus-spousal-spy spectacle that finally opens, on June 10, after a long and bumpy road to final cut. It’s not the first time news of a much-rumored big-movie romance has gone supernova. But what’s now being branded the saga of “Brangelina” sets a new, 21st-century benchmark-a sort of perfect publicity storm centered on two beautiful people whom the public is treating as daydream playthings, to the chagrin of at least one player among Mr. & Mrs. Smith’s creative team.

“I don’t like the exploitation of personal lives in tabloids,” says Akiva Goldsman, and Oscar winner for A Beautiful Mind (Best Adapted Screenplay) and one of five main producers on Smith. “I think it’s grim. I don’t think it helps anybody. Do I think it helps or hurts the movie? I think it’s irrelevant. Do I think it hurts the people involved? Sure.”

In a business where marriages, divorces, and passing flings are anxiously evaluated as career moves, exactly what is or isn’t true about Pitt and Jolie’s alleged connection may never be clear. The costars, as well as Pitt’s soon-to-be-ex wife, Jennifer Aniston, have made occasional pronouncements in the midst of the media carnival, none of them terribly revealing. (Pitt and Jolie declined to be interviewed for this article, though Jolie did tell EW earlier this year that while acting out the marital travails of her character, she drew on life experiences with two ex-husbands, Jonny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thornton: “For me, it was a lot of thinking about old relationships I had—marriages I had—and thinking, Oh, that’s the point where I wanted to kill that person.”)

But another key player in the maelstrom did agree to talk to us at length: director Doug Liman, an outspoken fellow who’s lately scored in TV (he directed the first two episodes of The O.C.) but who made his name with the indie movies Swingers and Go, before stepping up to summer-blockbuster territory with The Bourne Identity (see filmography on page 37). We caught up with Liman—just days after he previewed the finished film for audiences in New York and L.A.—for a freewheeling talk about early casting hiccups, the perils of confessing cute nicknames, the nesting instincts of Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolies’s way with knives.

EW: What’s it like directing two of the world’s biggest tabloid attention magnets?

Doug Liman: There were always paparazzi. Crazy paparazzi. One of my producers, Lucas Foster, made it his mission to keep them away [from outside locations]. I’d be getting ready to shoot, and there’d be a crane where I’m pointing the camera. I’d be like, Who put that there? Lucas would say, “I’m not moving that crane. There’s photographers in that hotel room up there, and I’m blocking them.” It became a constant thing of, we’re going to have to paint it out [with CG erasure tricks]. Ten grand a shot.

EW: Did it escalate this past spring, when Jennifer Aniston filed for divorce from Pitt right around the time you were doing some reshoots?

DL: They followed Brad the first day. Somebody said, “That’s Brad arriving. We heard the helicopter before we heard him—a helicopter that had been following him since he left the Beverly Hills Hotel. That was taking it up to a new level. We were told that a photo of the two of them together would be worth $300,000. So we were all like, Hmmmm! I tell ya, I had to think twice about that one. [Then they] were using a scanner to listen to our walkie-talkies. And one of the PAs got yelled at because he said something that could have been misinterpreted. We were shooting in the supermarket-shelf section of an IKEA-type store, and [Pitt and Jolie} were like, you know, fiddling around with the paddle balls or something. What actors do between takes. And a PA said, “Brad is screwing around with Angie.” They’re like, Look, you’ve got to be careful how you speak if you’re going to say something over the radio about them. On this movie, saying someone was “screwing around” would have a different context.

EW: What about speculation that the publicity could hurt your movie, the way it hurt, say, Proof of Life when Meg Ryan separated from Dennis Quaid after allegedly having an affair with Russell Crowe?

DL: You can sit there and blame it on Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, [But] you know, Proof of Life is just not that good a movie. There’s a fundamental flaw, which is that it’s yucky to have a love story when the [Meg Ryan character’s] husband is in a cage, and could be killed. It’s not appealing.

EW: A number of other directors—John Woo, David Fincher, Michael Mann, Guy Ritchie—circled around this picture, and anybody who committed had to meet with Pitt’s approval. How did it get on your radar screen?

DL: My agent called me [circa fall 2002] and said, I’m sending you a script. Brad Pitt and Nicole Kidman are attached to star. The script wasn’t perfect for me, but I had a really strong point of view on the material, and that’s what I look for.

EW: You had Nicole Kidman attached—but then she started filming The Stepford Wives in late spring 2003.

DL: On their first week of shooting, they were like, We’re [already] two and a half months behind schedule. [Laughter ] And that’s the day we were like, She can’t do our movie. Which really broke my heart, ‘cause I knew what was going to happen next: We were gonna lose Brad. And at some point during that process, sure enough, he did say, I’m passing. I was actually out to dinner with my family at some Chinese restaurant [when Pitt bowed out]. I had to face my family and say, The film just fell apart.

EW: So offers went out to Johnny Depp and Will Smith.

DL: There were some of us who liked one of them a lot more than the other, and some of us in the camp who liked the other one more. I won’t get anyone in trouble, but the end result is we ended up pursuing both. Then Brad changed his mind and said, I’m interested again. David Fincher [who directed Pitt in Fight Club for Regency, the company that financed Mr. & Mrs. Smith] explained to me, Get used to it. That’s just the nature of the beast making a movie with Brad Pitt.

EW: Did you ever think of trying to cast an actual married couple, the way Stanley Kubrick did with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut?

DL: No, but I had been interested in casting Gwyneth Paltrow opposite Brad Pitt. Because they’re really exes. Think of the spectacle of that. Fireworks could really fly in that situation. Because I’m sure there’s some s--- one of them was mad at the other one for. You find out what that baggage is and bring it out at the right moment, with the camera rolling. My producers were like, Look, that’s a great idea. But Brad is a human being. Even if he was game for it, it’s wrong for us to put him in a situation where he’s going to have to relive the demons of a relationship. That’s just a little bit too mad-scientist.

EW: So after you lost Nicole and gave up on the Gwyneth idea, who’d you consider before you got to Angelina?

DL: We really liked Cate Blanchett. Around that time, she’d come out with a [magazine-ad] photo spread where she looked like a spy. But she wasn’t available—she was doing The Aviator. Somehow Catherine Zeta-Jones’ name came up, but there wasn’t a lot of unanimity about casting her, as there was about Angelina Jolie.

EW: You wound up starting on Smith in January 2004, knowing that you would lose Brad Pitt at the end of April to Ocean’s Twelve—an awfully tight fit, which you didn’t make. You had to regroup in fall 2004 and then do more shooting in March 2005 for a summer release—plus one last day in April where you filmed your third try at an ending, and it stuck. Are you slow, or is somebody a bad planner, or is that just life on a big-budget movie with busy stars?

DL: The first day of my shoot, we were still arguing about the [initial] stop date. They were going to not let us start shooting the movie until the stop date situation was worked out. We started shooting and it wasn’t worked out at all. And sure enough [by April] it was like, No, he really is leaving.

EW: Didn’t people foresee that? A Regency rep says you did—that you knew you’d have to stop and then start again. But it sounds like a game of chicken.

DL: I was like, There’s no way [Steven Soderbergh] is going to start [Ocean’s Twelve] on time. He doesn’t have a script yet. And movies of that scale just don’t start on time.

EW: That is so bizarre—because basically the same thing happened to you previously with Matt Damon on The Bourne Identity: He had to drop out for a while to film Ocean’s Eleven.

DL: For the second time in a row, I bet against Steven Soderbergh.

EW: For all the headaches, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is remarkably consistent in tone. It has action-movie violence, but it’s played almost as comedy—though not quite. How hard was it to get that?

DL: Simon Kinberg’s script was actually funnier. There was a moment I loved in the script where she grabs his golf trophy. And she’s going to club him over the head with it and he says, No! Don’t! I’m only the custodian of that for the year! [But] it was a little too goofy for Brad and Angie.

EW: Meaning they just wouldn’t film it?

DL: It’s always a tricky dance with those two. I mean, [Pitt] picked me. But that didn’t mean he was going to relinquish all control. And he’s not wrong for that. I think these movie stars become movie stars because they get very involved. They’re not just pawns.

EW: Is it intimidating working for the first time with such major stars? It must be like being in high school and getting invited to sit at the Heathers table to eat lunch.

DL: The key is to not be intimidated, because then you really would make a bad movie. But it is like the Heathers table.

EW: Did the “Brangelina” stories affect the editing of Mr. & Mrs. Smith? There were reports that a sex scene between Brad and Angelina got trimmed—but that’s apparently untrue: The scene is in the movie, after they have a huge fight trying to kill each other.

DL: I did have a really frank conversation with Dave Matalon [who runs Regency], when we were mixing the movie, about what kind of music would be on sex scene. I wanted Joe Strummer singing “Mondo Bongo,” which is a little tribal and for me very sexy. Dave said, Look, I’m honestly worried about the Jennifer Aniston fans out there. I don’t want to lose that little niche audience of people who are huge Jennifer Aniston fans who are going to hate Angelina Jolie if the sex scene is too sexy. People will see the sex scene and say, Oh, that’s how Angie did it. It’ll be like, She used her wiles to seduce him. I would rather put something sweeter musically over the sex scene. I’m not telling you it’s better, I’m…telling you where I’m coming from.

EW: How did you manage to keep the steamier music?

DL: Luckily I had a bunch of women on my sound crew who came to my defense and helped win him over. I ultimately prevailed.

EW: What about actually filming that scene?

DL: It was awkward for me, coming from a relatively uptight family. To break the ice, I thought I would use one of those techniques where you talk about something embarrassing about yourself, and it’s a big bonding experience. It wasn’t that well thought out, but somehow it came out that I had an ex-girlfriend who’d given me the nickname Bunny. And I said, I’m sure, Angie, that you’ve had cute names like that for your boyfriends. And Brad, I’m sure you’ve had girlfriends who called you, y’know Little Mushroom, or Walnut or My Little Scrubby-Wubby. I honestly thought everybody does this. And they were like, “…Uh, no.” So I was left there, naked. It wasn’t a bonding experience at all. I lost all sexual credibility with Angie on the spot. She called me Bunny from then on. She never let me forget. They were both like, You’re so not qualified to pass judgment on positions we might be in [for the scene]. You’re the guy whose girlfriend called you Bunny.

EW: People keep calling it “the sex scene,” but it’s not like they lie down in a bed. They’re standing up kissing and grinding against each other. It’s not like they simulate the actual deed.

DL: Well, the movie’s PG-13

EW: When the cameras actually rolled, was it as awkward for your costars as it seems to have been for you?

DL: They were pretty comfortable with it. I mean, I think Brad and I were more uncomfortable, cause she’s such a force to be reckoned with. Occasionally she’d make a comment and both of us would be like, Whoa!

EW: A comment like what?

DL: She’s just very—she likes to be shocking sexually. Just read any interview she’s given. She likes to be that person in the room who’s least embarrassed, and willing to put it out there. Eventually, to try to recover from the Bunny thing, I suggested [she should perform] the most graphic, crazy sex act I could imagine [for the love scene]. Just to try to shock her. Like, 10 steps beyond anything I’d consider doing in my own life. She starts furrowing her eyebrows and I’m like, Oh, never heard of that one? Guess Bunny’s not that sheltered! And she’s like, No, actually, I’m just trying to figure out whether I’ve done that one.

EW: How did Brad and Angelina influence each other’s acting?

DL: She in the movie is playing the way Brad is in real life, and vice versa. I mean, he really is a homemaker. He’s into fabrics and art and architecture and what color is on the wall, is it eggshell or ecru? But for Angie, bringing her into that suburban home and trying to sit [her] down at the dinner table? I might as well have asked her to simulate being on a spacecraft. She had no point of reference at all, from her own life, of what a normal home would be like. And she’s much more into weapons, as a human being, than Brad is. Any time my prop guy did show-and-tells of knives and guns, she’d be very, very, knowledgeable. I’m looking at them wondering if they look cool, and she’s asking, Does this also come with a serrated blade? And which particular kind of hook, once you stick it into somebody, is good for ripping their flesh on the way out? Details I wouldn’t even know existed.

EW: This movie’s very much like a James Bond picture at times. Would you ever want to take on directing an actual James Bond movie?

DL: I think the Broccolis have a specific formula for James Bond where they don’t want it to be too original. That’s what I’ve been told. They want them to be just like the ones that came before. They don’t see anything broken with the series. And in some ways, it’s not broken, right? They still do huge business. We come away a little disappointed, but we still go to them. So they may not be wrong. But if they were like, Okay, time to freshen it up, I’d love to.

EW: You tried building an ending to Mr. & Mrs. Smith around the couple defeating two villains—initially played by Jacqueline Bisset and Terance Stamp, then recast with Angela Bassett and Keith David. You basically cut those characters out. Why?

DL: It was important to not give it that resolution. Because if you think about a relationship, there is no point at which you suddenly defeat the forces of antagonism. It’s not like, Oh, we got married, we’re finished having to fight for the relationship. Or, We celebrated our fifth anniversary, now it’s easy. It’s never easy. It takes work every day. People assume the rich and famous have it easy. Actually as evidenced by recent events, it’s no easier for Brad Pitt to maintain a marriage that it is for, you know the neighbors on three. People assume because he [flies in] private jets and has huge mansions that life must be great inside those. It doesn’t get easier just because you’re an international assassin. And it doesn’t get easier because you’re Brad Pitt.