Tony Gilroy has a mini-armada at his disposal. In June of 2012, in an unassuming block of offices in midtown Manhattan, the writer/director is sequestered with a team of editors orchestrating the next installment of Universal’s lucrative ‘Bourne’ franchise, which grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide theatrically and a surfeit more from DVD and omnipresent cable appearances. But Gilroy — who was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay in 2007 for "Michael Clayton," and is the author of all three original ‘Bourne’ scripts — isn’t simply mounting a reboot or a reimagining, or conducting a linear sequel. Instead, the filmmaker is attempting to pull off a feat rarely attempted with Hollywood tentpoles: a parallel circumnavigation of the familiar ‘Bourne’ narrative told through the eyes of another agent.
“There was never just one” the ‘Legacy’ tagline states ominously, alluding to super-agents beyond Jason Bourne. Or as Edward Norton’s character says in the film, "Jason Bourne was just the tip of the iceberg." In short: “The Bourne Legacy,” Universal’s fourth film in the Bourne series, looks at the ramifications and consequences of the events that take place near the end of “The Bourne Ultimatum,” and spins them off in a bold new direction, revealing a larger chess game at play.
There’s also inventive overlap and an incredibly audacious moment of unity. “We actually get a phone call from ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ in this movie,” Gilroy says, laughing almost in disbelief at the trick they’ve pulled off. For the first fifteen or so minutes of “The Bourne Legacy,” the film is actually running concurrently with “The Bourne Ultimatum.” And as Jason Bourne surfaces in Manhattan in that picture, and the secret Operation Blackbriar program is exposed to the media, the political shitstorm fans far and wide, bleeding into this new movie. The action drama introduces a new character, Aaron Cross, another agent under the larger umbrella of Operation Treadstone. Played by Jeremy Renner, the two-time Academy Award-nominated actor for “The Hurt Locker” and “The Town,” the 41-year-old late bloomer turned rising star is perhaps best known for playing Tom Cruise’s secondary man in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” and Hawkeye in Marvel’s billion-dollar-grossing tentpole “The Avengers.”
Before we sit down to chat formally, Gilroy, a salt-and-pepper haired mix of in-the-pocket confidence and controlled, wiry energy, invites me to watch almost 30 minutes of the new film.
Tony Gilroy and his brother and editor John screen a generous dollop of ‘Bourne Legacy’ footage that’s at once fascinating, intriguingly new and thrillingly familiar in its propulsive use of tempo beyond just action (co-scripted by Tony and his brother Dan, “The Bourne Legacy” is somewhat of a family affair).
In “The Bourne Identity,” the shadow hand at play is Operation Treadstone, its successor Operation Blackbriar is at the nexus of the next two ‘Bourne’ sequels, and in ‘Legacy,’ the newest program is Operation Outcome. They are all off-the-books black ops programs under the same clandestine canopy. Similar, and yet, we’re soon to discover, very different.
One way of looking at the new film in the series — at least in its opening — is through the riflescope of an assassin watching the events of “The Bourne Ultimatum” unfold. Only to discover in “The Bourne Legacy” another assassin who has been spying in on that sharpshooter all along. To keep it simpler, it’s as if the aperture and frame have opened fully to reveal the greater cloak-and-dagger machinations at work. And from an outside perspective, the idea seems like a brilliantly clever way to reinvent the series.
One early sequence shows the stakes for all involved are do or die. Norton’s character, who calls what they do "morally indefensible, but absolutely necessary," likens the consequences of the ‘Ultimatum’ political scandal to a cancer. If it "metastasizes," before they can treat it — put it in remission by deflagrating all the evidence, including the agents — they're fucked. "Can you imagine the magnitude if this goes sideways on us?" he says to his team with furrowed concern. Outcome has become a liability, so it must be burned to the ground.
An action setpiece in the streets of Manila that evolves into a terrific motorcycle chase goes on for a heart-stopping 18 minutes. Renner completed a lot of his own stunts, including a breathtaking jump off a building where he slides down between two walls with his feet. The dedicated actor was mounted on a safety rig, but still has bruises and scars to show for his daring work in the film.
Most notably, the visual vocabulary has changed in this iteration, trading vertiginous discombobulation for orientation, yet without sacrificing propulsion or testosterone. And Gilroy has two valuable assets by his side: cinematographer Robert Elswit ("There Will Be Blood," "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol") and legendary stunt coordinator Dan Bradley who worked on all the previous ‘Bourne’ films. A sequence in a lab that introduces Rachel Weisz’s scientist character Dr. Marta Shearing is chilling in its use of violence: clean, cynical and remorseless. The exact opposite tone of the shaky-cam anatomy from the ‘Bourne’ films.
Several familiar faces from the ‘Bourne’ narrative are seen throughout in keeping with the narrative and the aftermath of ‘Ultimatum’ when Blackbriar is exposed to the public. CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), Task Force Chief Pamela Landey (Joan Allen), CIA director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn), British journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), Special Agent Ray Wills (Corey Johnson) and more all return in small but crucial supporting roles. And several new characters are introduced including Norton’s Ret. Col. Ric Byer character, Byer’s team (which includes Corey Stoll and Donna Murphy) and another Outcome agent played by Oscar Isaac.
While Treadstone operatives — Matt Damon, Marton Csokas, Clive Owen and Edgar Ramirez’s characters — in the previous films were trained assassins, Outcome operatives like Aaron Cross are more complex. And whereas Blackbriar and Treadstone were CIA programs, Outcome lies under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense. “They’re not assassins; that's not their primary objective,” Gilroy said. “They're very very submersive, incredibly nimble, and they haven't just been physically enhanced, there's a cognitive aspect to it that's very important. They're very very adaptive, they're very diverse and the things that they do are very long term and of extremely high value to the D.O.D..”
And unlike Jason Bourne, Aaron Cross doesn’t suffer from amnesia or a lack of identity, the driving force in the previous Bourne films. Cross’ motivations, something Gilroy won’t fully explain for fear of fundamental story spoilers, point to something much larger in play that hopes to widen the canvas of the ‘Bourne’ story.
“No, Aaron Cross remembers everything,” Gilroy explains, clearly trying to dance around the film's heavily guarded secrets. “It's very, very different, he's not morally confused at all. There is something very fundamentally, soulful and really emotionally powerful stuff that's driving Aaron Cross, that's such a potent piece of character motivation. There’s an element of ‘Spartacus’ in here, of the people in that program tugging at their leash a bit, but it's a more fundamental thing for him and it's not about morality but it’s as Greek as that.”
Gilroy says the 6 month shoot for “The Bourne Legacy” — which hit locations as far and wide as Seoul, Korea, Manila, Jarkarta, Abu Dhabi, Northern Canada and several parts of the U.S. including crowded New York City — was “physically taxing.” While it’s not impossible to do otherwise, the writer/director says for him to write convincing action he has to be physically present. For ‘Identity,’ he had already lived in Paris and knew its streets well. For ‘Supremacy,’ he went to Berlin and Moscow and on ‘Ultimatum’ it was Tangier, sitting on rooftops, mapping out how rooftop chases would go. "The more you know the world, the more know the physics of a geography."
The kinetic, shaky-cam aesthetic of the 'Bourne' films is an anathema to Gilroy. It’s similar to the chatty, pop-culture hit-men that arrived in every film post “Pulp Fiction”; he's seen the style done to death. He calls the disorientated sequences in "Full Metal Jacket" masterful and says the same about scenes in "Black Hawk Down," because they’re purposefully made to create a timbre of fear, but he also gives the series plaudits for inventing that visual language. "I think there are much greater offenders [than ‘Bourne],' " he says, "At least they had real gravity.” That pragmatic mandate has stuck. He says his team refers to themselves as “Mission: Plausible,” not “Mission: Impossible.” Similarly, while “The Bourne Legacy” isn’t a wholesale reinvention, the filmmaker thinks the former dynamic is played and has tried to expand the film's overall grammar. “Everybody's doing ‘Bourne.’ That’s an old party,” Gilroy says of the way the Bourne’s disorientation aesthetic and overall tone has been co-opted by every action movie under the sun. “You gotta know when It's time to leave. You don't want to be the last people out the door so let's go first.”
“I believe in corporate evolution,” Howard Tully, as played by Tom Wilkinson says ruthlessly in Gilroy’s sophomore effort, “Duplicity.” It may seem like a throwaway line in relation to the writer/director’s other films, but it’s a type of narrative raison d’etre for Gilroy. Not one that he consents to morally, but one he subscribes to narratively. Look at “Michael Clayton” and “Duplicity,” and you’ll see odious corporate influence at the nexus of his stories and this theme also drives “The Bourne Legacy.” After all, behind every corrupt politician willing to create a not-on-the-books Black Ops organization generally lies a corporate entity willing to profit from it.
At the heart of it all, pulling a lot of the unseen strings in the series so far is Edward Norton’s CIA architect agent Ret. Col. Ric Byer. “His character is just a complete polymath with a military background,” Gilroy said. “He's managed to prove a great power utilizing military muscle and bodies and resources with corporate money, corporate research and the intelligence communities need for everything.” Norton and Gilroy fit hand in glove and the filmmaker doubts this is the last time they’ll work together.
“It's so rich and real,” Gilroy said of the shady intersection where the military and corporate influence overlap, intersect and inbreed. It’s endless narrative fodder for him, and those illicit and corrupt operations not only helped him launch the ‘Bourne’ series, but sustain its ideas indefinitely. “It's vampiric,” he said. “It really is. Absent of global warming, lack of water and basic elements, the development of Nation States outside of our control is I think the greatest issue of our time.”
“There's a very large corporate elements [at play in the film], pharmaceutical corporate elements, and all of this is very, very real,” Gilroy says suggesting all one needs to do for inspiration is look at their headlines in their newspaper.
But composing ‘Bourne’ was never very simple. Not for a fourth iteration and not even during its nascent beginnings. At the risk of sounding redundant, “The Bourne Identity” was plagued by set problems, delays and setbacks, and the events of 9/11 further affected the approach studios and filmmakers made toward any geopolitically-flavored film. Director Doug Liman — who brought the Robert Ludlum-penned books to Universal in the first place — was effectively barred from helming any further sequels and everyone involved assumed the film would be a turkey.
“Oh man, nobody was more surprised than me. It's a very long and quite honestly, a story people have avoided talking about for a long time,” Gilroy said about “The Bourne Identity” drama. “It really was a very dire situation, the key participants in the film were the people who were most shocked at its success.”
Gilroy said after principal photography on the film was completed, he and the producers on the film had to spend an additional year repairing and deconstructing the movie with reshoots and re-editing. An entire post-9/11, friendly fail-safe ending was shot and then discarded (it’s on the DVD extras). He calls the experience extremely educational in the manner in which a movie is malleable. “It's not a way to make a movie,” he stressed. “I learned a lot about what I would never do.”
Gilroy’s antipathy towards Paul Greengrass is no secret. Suffice to say they butted heads during the makings of “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.” When Greengrass deconstructed Gilroy’s screenplay in ‘Ultimatum’ (as he did with ‘Supremacy’) and painted himself into a corner on set, unlike ‘Identity’ — where Gilroy would fax in changes and rewrites that very day — the screenwriter was nowhere to be found. Part of his own ultimatum for writing the 'Ultimatum' screenplay was not babysitting the script outside of a master draft (instead screenwriters Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi were called in as fixers).
Nearly $1 billion dollars later, the ‘Bourne’ trilogy had wrapped and arguably concluded itself with satisfying finality. Jason Bourne discovered he was originally born as David Webb in Indiana. He was a patriot who volunteered for the Treadstone program, and he no longer suffered from selective retrograde amnesia. He was free. As far as Damon and Greengrass were concerned, the themes of identity and amnesia were pounded into the ground. Two aborted “Bourne 4” screenplays later, the direction with where to take the next film eluded everyone; and the drafts penned were never to the liking of Greengrass and Damon. In the fall of 2009, two years after “The Bourne Ultimatum” was released, Greengrass walked away from the series (something The Playlist reported first) and with loyalties intact, effectively took Damon with him; the actor refusing to star in a ‘Bourne’ picture without his director.
While both filmmaker and star would not rule out a return to the series one day, they acknowledged, until a good idea surfaced, they would let the series lie as it was. “There were no traditional good ways to go,” Gilroy said. “They were sort of out of road.” And Gilroy was long gone by then too, having already chalked up an impressive seven Oscar nominations for his directorial debut “Michael Clayton,” and released his sophomore effort, the corporate espionage picture, “Duplicity.”
Having washed his hands of the entire affair and launched a very successful directing career, bringing Tony Gilroy back into the ‘Bourne’ fold wasn’t initially tenable. There had been drama. There had been endless aggravation and fences had to be mended before conversations could really take shape. Producer Ben Smith and his Captivate partner Jeffrey Weiner, also the executor of the Ludlum estate, coaxed an initially reluctant Gilroy into a meeting in New York one morning after the director had “previously rebuffed inquiries from others on the subject before,” Smith said. The duo scored a small coup when Gilroy hesitantly agreed to give it a “thought” and nothing more. It was all they could ask for.
But before Gilroy fully came on board, he says a “lot of crazy ideas were being thrown around" by the studio and producers. He describes reboots, ‘Bond’-like recasting and prequels — all ideas that were toyed with — as deeply cynical. "You can't replace Matt Damon with Sam Worthington or whomever, or do a prequel,” he says. “We had to keep reminding everybody who is getting frustrated that we couldn't do anything cynical. You have to approach it like a really soulful, authentic thing."
Weeks later after some digging, Gilroy called the Captivate producers up (who produced the picture in association with Patrick Crowley and Frank Marshall of Marshall/Kennedy) and said, much to their elation, “I have an idea.” They never dreamt he would write the thing, let alone eventually direct it. Gilroy describes these meetings as exploratory and mercenary to a certain extent, equating it to a fun math problem one tries to solve with zero pressure. But then he hit a vein. And soon he hit an artery. Then came genuine excitement.
“You hit something and you go, ‘Oh my god, there's a fire inside here that's really cool,’ ” Gilroy says about hitting the eureka moment that eventually spawned the larger ‘Legacy’ narrative and more importantly the character who could anchor it, Aaron Cross. “This has all the elements that could interest me for, you know, two years of my life.”
Gilroy’s idea was risky. Matt Damon wasn’t coming back anytime soon, and they’d have to re-platform their franchise with a new star. But the idea was so juicy and rich, the producers and Universal were soon on board. “It didn't take a lot of convincing for everybody to be like ‘Let's just double down and be ambitious,' ” he says. “Not in a cocky way, but if we fail let's fail for really doing something, really blowing off the doors.”
“The Bourne Legacy” does just that. It’s high-octane chess and while familiar in tenor, the picture pushes the envelope of what you’ve come to expect from the ‘Bourne’ story. “Enchancement” — a chromosome modifier spelled out in recent trailers — is a four-letter word in some circles of the fan-based ‘Bourne’ universe, but Gilroy believe those who are most vocal about these issues are going to be most pleased when they realize how it connects to the series’ core themes of bending an agents will to do their bidding without question; the perfect soldier. Jason Bourne, after all, had also originally volunteered for Operation Treadstone and soon his identity had been subsumed beyond his own recognition.
Gilroy is well-aware the window for the dramatic middle ground films that are his bread and butter — the “Michael Clayton” films of the world — are shrinking. In fact he says that period ended around the time of "Duplicity" was released in 2009. He says it’s over and it’s not coming back, but griping about it is like complaining about the weather. The filmmaker says all good drama has dispersed en masse to the land of TV. While he seems open to exploring that one day, the director says he gained a large appetite for “big time filmmaking,” creating "big time shots" and fantastic scenes during ‘Clayton’ and “Duplicity.” Gilroy says after his debut he was offered a lot of action pictures and to be puzzled by him directing ‘Bourne’ is an underestimation. But, if you want to work where he aspires to stay, in what he refers to as "the big game" of feature films with a real budget, one has to find material that engages both the filmmaker and the audience. " 'Bourne' hit that sweet spot for me," he says.
Tony Gilroy declines to engage in questions about Matt Damon, the star of the ‘Bourne’ series who made disparaging remarks about Gilroy’s ‘Bourne Ultimatum’ script earlier this year. But suffice it to say the filmmaker still seems shocked, surprised and hurt for someone he clearly has admiration for. "I don't understand that at all. I don't know where it came from. I think Matt is one of the greatest actors of his generation,” Gilroy told Empire magazine recently.
But Gilroy doesn’t seem to be preoccupied with that dramaturgy at the moment and is more keen on moving “The Bourne Legacy” into the future. He’s already thinking sequels, but is acutely aware audiences have to embrace this pilot franchise film first. He has a vision that he’s mapping out and hints at it in this new film: if there was Treadstone/BlackBriar and now there's Outcome, who's to say there aren't further programs out there? And who's to say the puppet masters of this film aren't pawns in an ever larger scheme?
“If this works, it will be with a real cosmology and real mythology going forward,” he says. “It will very nicely clear some fields to the horizon that are legitimate, interesting things to play with that aren't cheesy."
Still, the question remains: will Damon ever return to the fold? One can envision a future film where Jason Bourne is watching the events of 'Legacy' unfold from wherever he's currently hiding. Will he pop back on the grid like he did in "The Bourne Supremacy" after months of being underground? Or even better, will there be a Damon/Renner crossover movie?
"It's wide open," Gilroy says with a faint trace of hope on his face. "I don't know."
“The Bourne Legacy” hits theaters on August 10th.