Jeremy Renner in The Bourne Legacy
Matt Damon didn’t want to make another Jason Bourne movie, and neither did director Paul Greengrass. When your leading man and star filmmaker have departed one of your most profitable series, the alternatives aren’t great.
But in today’s Hollywood, those options do not include throwing in the towel. The Bourne Legacy is Universal Pictures’s audacious answer to its spy series quandary. Rather than ditch Damon for another actor — the case when Harrison Ford replaced Alec Baldwin in the Tom Clancy movies or repeatedly with James Bond — the studio decided to create a parallel plot with a new actor, The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner, and added a fresh director, Michael Clayton’s Tony Gilroy.
“It’s one of our most lucrative franchises,” said Donna Langley, Universal’s co-chairman, of the three Bourne films, which have sold a combined $944 million in worldwide tickets. “So it was absolutely imperative that we figure it out.”
It was easier said than done.
Before picking the current story and cast, Universal and Captivate Entertainment, which manages the movie rights of the late Bourne novelist Robert Ludlum, considered a prequel that could star a younger actor as Jason Bourne. Gilroy initially declined working on the project, unsure there was a tale worth exploring. Even after settling on the current story, the studio and its filmmakers pondered other actors besides Renner to play the part, a shortlist that including Ryan Gosling and Tom Hardy.
And all the while the production had to dodge the barbs of Greengrass, who suggested a fourth movie be called “The Bourne Redundancy,” and Damon, who disparaged Gilroy’s talents.
In a summer in which Universal’s Battleship will lose about $100 million and its Snow White and the Huntsman will struggle to break even, the studio badly needs its $130-million Bourne Legacy to connect. Unlike many successful series, the cerebral spy tales filled with double and triple crossings have attracted strong reviews and robust attendance from older moviegoers, who typically shy away from most big-budget summer fare.
But Universal has struggled to create a separate identity for The Bourne Legacy, which focuses on a clandestine programme to create superhuman soldiers. Renner says some of his friends still mistakenly believe he’s playing Damon’s character.
“I hope it starts a conversation — that there’s excitement about the possibilities,” said Renner, who is committed to star in a sequel should there be one, about The Bourne Legacy. “That would be the ultimate compliment: I can’t wait to see where this goes next.”
reboot after full circle
While 2002’s The Bourne Identity was directed by Doug Liman, Damon and Greengrass collaborated on 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy and 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, the latter of which was the best-reviewed of the trilogy, the highest-grossing and the winner of three technical Oscars.
When we last saw Jason Bourne five years ago in that film, it appeared the trilogy’s amnesiac spy had come full circle, sorting out not only who he was but also where the government’s bad apples resided. Damon and Greengrass, who later would collaborate on Green Zone, said they didn’t want to make another Bourne film without each other.
When Greengrass thought scripts for a fourth film weren’t worthy, the series looked just like Bourne himself at the start of the initial production: dead in the water.
As Damon and Greengrass were making the Iraq war drama Green Zone in 2008, Universal hired George Nolfi, who worked on The Bourne Ultimatum and wrote and directed Damon’s The Adjustment Bureau, to come up with new adventures for Jason Bourne. The studio penciled in a summer 2010 release date.
But in some ways, it was a doomed assignment. At the end of the third film, Damon’s character has sorted out his identity and more or less decided his spy days are over. No one liked Nolfi’s script, and a separate effort by screenwriter Joshua Zetumer was equally unsuccessful in the producers’ eyes. A number of other writers pitched ideas, “and nothing really clicked,” said Frank Marshall, who’s produced all the Bourne films.
Greengrass by this time was finishing Green Zone, which required extensive reshoots and ultimately fizzled at the box office. The British director now had made three straight action movies with Damon, and like a married couple feeling a seven-year-itch, needed a break. With Greengrass out, so was Damon.
Even though the recasting idea has worked with the Bond films — with the possible exceptions of George Lazenby and Pierce Brosnan — such a move ran contrary to Bourne’s DNA. Unlike the Bond films, the Bourne movies are grounded in an elevated reality and don’t wink their cleverness at the audience, making recasting feel unnatural. Finally, how could different actors play the same amnesiac? Which person couldn’t remember what?
“My argument was, ‘No one would believe it,’” Marshall said of recasting. “I would have laid down in the street to stop that.”
Captivate executives went to New York to see whether they could drag Gilroy back to solve the creative gridlock. Gilroy had been an integral member of the Bourne team, but he was building a career separate from the series. In addition to writing and directing his feature debut, 2007’s Michael Clayton, which was nominated for best picture, the 55-year-old filmmaker also directed Julia Roberts in 2009’s Duplicity and co-wrote Russell Crowe’s State of Play that same year.
Complicating matters more than a bit was that Gilroy had complained in the New Yorker about how his Bourne Supremacy script had been directed by Greengrass, saying the director’s failure to make Bourne atone for his violent crimes was “a crime against the gods of storytelling”. Damon returned the favour, telling GQ that Gilroy’s script for The Bourne Ultimatum was “unreadable... I could put this thing up on eBay and it would be game over for that dude.”
So when Smith and partner Jeffrey Weiner, executor of the Ludlum estate, knocked on Gilroy’s door their expectations weren’t high. “I took the meeting out of courtesy,” Gilroy said. But like a reluctant blind date that leads to a relationship, Gilroy’s brain started spinning as soon as Smith and Weiner left.
A few weeks later, Gilroy called with his idea. “What if you found out there was a much bigger conspiracy?”
jason bourne to aaron cross
If the CIA had its secret Treadstone programme in the Bourne movies, what if the Department of Defence had another, equally clandestine scheme called Outcome? In the mind of Gilroy, who co-wrote the script with his brother Dan, the U.S. government was using drugs to alter the chemistry of soldiers, including Renner’s Aaron Cross, to improve their muscle efficiency, neural regeneration and pain suppression.
When the government decides to wipe out the programme, Cross recruits a research scientist (Rachel Weisz) to outfox the secret agency headed by Eric Boyer (Edward Norton Jr.) that runs the Department of Defence experiment. The cast includes several brief scenes with veterans of the previous Bourne films, including Joan Allen, Albert Finney, Scott Glenn and David Strathairn.
The way Universal and Captivate saw it, the Cross scheme could set in motion a fresh narrative without slamming the door on the old one. “What was exciting to me about it is that it kept everything intact in terms of the universe and Jason Bourne and created a trajectory for a new character and potentially a new franchise,” Smith said.
Gilroy felt the story could stand the test of time and fit into the ground rules of the preceding Bourne films. “We’re not science fiction. This is really coming,” Gilroy said of work to make soldiers superhuman. “It’s not just genetic engineering. It’s not just pharmaceutical engineering.”
“He has been given transcendence,” Gilroy said of Cross. “And it is about to be taken away from him. Imagine that you couldn’t be who you were anymore, having all of your lights turned off.”
Unlike the two films by Greengrass, Gilroy’s movie doesn't have a lot of herky-jerky, vertigo-inducing camera work. The movie is a bit more formal and intellectual, and if you pay close attention (and are obsessed with the trilogy), you can see Gilroy trying to repair some inconsistencies in the Bourne mathematics. “Everything wasn’t organised perfectly along the way,” Gilroy said of the earlier films.
Marshall, the ever-optimistic producer, said that if The Bourne Legacy connects with audiences, the options for more Bournes are numerous. “Where it goes and who comes back is left to be determined,” he said. “We can go in a lot of directions.”
WHAT ARE THE
A series of action/ thriller spy films based on the character Jason Bourne, a former CIA assassin suffering from extreme memory loss, created by author Robert Ludlum. The series is noted for its realism, in contrast to the growing use of computer-generated imagery in the action genre.
Matt Damon (above) has played the title character in three Bourne films, namely The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum.
Part of The Bourne Supremacy was set and shot in India.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire, Josh Hartnett, Michael Fassbender, Alex Pettyfer and Chris Evans among others were considered for The Bourne Legacy. Jeremy Renner was ultimately chosen for the role of Aaron Cross. Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton are the other big names in the cast.