“The Bourne Legacy” could be seen by some as a long-time coming for writer/director Tony Gilroy. While the almost billion-dollar grossing series has been defined by Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, arguably the man behind the scenes masterminding many of the strings was Gilroy, who wrote all three ‘Bourne’ films (two writers were hired to work on ‘Ultimatum‘ after his first draft).
So it’s almost ironic that in “The Bourne Legacy,” Gilroy (Academy-Award-nominated director of “Michael Clayton”) pulls back the series’ own curtain to reveal the deeper and wider machinations in a much larger conspiracy. And the director’s job was not an easy one. “The Bourne Legacy,” moves forward without its lead Jason Bourne and instead has to perform some akimbo side-step moves to introduce new antagonists and heroes. Starring Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton and Rachel Weisz, “The Bourne Legacy” is a multi-layered and fascinating expansion of the franchise’s world and mythology.
The Playlist had the opportunity to talk to Gilroy at length several times over the summer. What follows is an abridged version of those conversations where Gilroy discussed the charged history of the old series, the challenge of mounting a new ‘Bourne’ series without Jason Bourne, his thoughts on the semi-controversial “enhancements” in the film, the death of the Oscar drama and much much more. For a feature article overview of from these conversations, you can read more of our earlier interview with Gilroy here.
This is the first time you’ve entered this sort of franchise territory as a director. Was the fact that it was a Bourne movie, something you’d been involved in since the start, make it more enticing to direct over other projects?
I wrote on a lot of movies that I didn’t direct. It was cumulative. I started working on “Michael Clayton” while I was writing on “Proof of Life” [circa 2000] and and then I came to ‘Bourne Identity.’ So I think ‘Bourne’ when it came along, interrupted the work on ‘Clayton.’ I was always doing ‘Clayton’ for myself. I had a script, several years earlier, this big paparazzi movie that I wanted to direct that didn’t get off the ground, I didn’t quite have the balls to put it together, I kind of wimped out on that.
So I had my eye on the door, but it wasn’t… My fantasy after ‘Clayton,’ was I can write for dough on big movies and then every year and a half I can go make a really make a ‘Clayton’-type small-ish drama. Who knew that that movie business would disappear. It disappeared instantaneously. By the time we finished “Duplicity” that middle ground of dramatic filmmaking — that movie business was over. I don’t kid myself at all, I think that movie business is gone and not coming back. It’s like complaining about the weather, it’s a fact. There will be festival films, there will be a way to live, where a movie like ‘Clayton’ gets made if you get a movie star like [George] Clooney to waive his fee, there will be exceptions for decades. But as a rule the middle class drama, ambitious drama, it’s on TV. Everybody knows that, it’s why TV is so great right now, they’ve got it.
Do you feel obligated to the previous Bourne films? Do you go in thinking about the pressure from three successes?
I really don’t at all. For me, there were lots of different things for me to do. “Michael Clayton” changed my life [ed. it was his feature-length debut as a director/writer and it earned 7 Oscar nominations], I really lucked out to do the things that I did when I did them. The first blush of these first [new ‘Bourne’] meetings were both exploratory and mercenary in some sense, you know? But all of a sudden we stumbled across the one thing we haven’t touched on yet in this series.
So what’s the basic difference between Jason Bourne and Aaron Cross?
There is something very fundamental and soulful and really emotionally powerful that’s driving Aaron Cross, that was such a potent piece of character motivation, and such a fresh idea, it’s like you go “Wow, this is a really big meal, this is something that actually interests me, and could hold my interest through the pain threshold of making the movie.” You try to find something that will interest you and interest the audience. If you don’t have a choice, you know, you, you need the paycheck or you just got divorced there’s all kinds of reasons not to do it. But if you don’t, if you’re in a happy place, for me it was really, “Oh my god, there’s a fire inside this that’s really cool, and I think we can attract really amazing actors.”
And to keep it fresh?
Well, everybody’s doing Bourne. There’s five things on TV exactly like that. That is an old party. It’s time to leave the party, you don’t want to be the last people out the door, so let’s go first. Because if you try to just redo it, that’s the “Super Bowl” thinking of cynical things. If we fail let’s fail for doing something, really taking it out. So if you were looking at it as a dynastic thing we probably would have recreated what we had before.
What was the thing that made you cast Jeremy, why him?
We knew how complicated the part was. You really needed to have someone who could be completely socially nimble in one moment, and completely private the next. We knew it would be an emotional odyssey we were going to put him on. We also knew we were going to introduce story in a really unusual way, which is to sort of let it sneak up on you rather than announcing it at the top. So we needed an amazing actor, obviously. We also needed somebody who could just physically handle it and from all of the reports back on “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” [which ‘Legacy’ DOP Robert Elswit also shot], I was terribly impressed with how physical he was. I think he also got a close hand deal watching Tom Cruise work, and I think it was sort of a graduate program. So he’s physically just good. We needed somebody that we could form, that was just sort of slightly unformed, that we could identify. So that was the venn diagram on what we were looking for.
That’s true, he’s just getting to that point, and you guys have the benefit of him being in ‘Mission Impossible,’ ‘The Avengers’ and this. That’s a good sweet spot to be in. He did a lot of his own stunts, right?
Yeah, he’s amazing. Almost to the point of having to take stuff away. He’s very, very good. There are a couple of people out there that are like that, just really gifted actors, and movie athletes. It’s really amazing. Let’s put it this way, he didn’t have to be that good to make it work. I’d never been that intimately involved with what it takes, it just makes it so much easier when a guy can learn his shit faster than the stunt guys can learn it. When he knows how to take care of himself and not get hurt and simplifying and improving and acting all the way through it, so that every step becomes a performance, in a way. We’re very lucky to have him do that, there’s only a couple of people that can do it.
The scale of this is massive. Was there a point where there was a question mark of whether you were directing this or not?
It was such an incremental thing. To try and come up with a way to move forward, the math problem of it… I knew that the story would be empty calories if we didn’t have a good character and so when the character really dropped, and I figured out what his problem was, and what he needed, and where he came from, it got very, very interesting to me, and then the story changed very quickly. When things happen quickly you get excited about them. By the time I had finished the treatment, I put [the idea of directing] on the table right from the beginning and said it was something I wanted to talk about.
Lets talk practical differences between the Treadstone agents and the Outcome agents in these movies.
On a practical level, the Treadstone program was about assassination. They’re basically assassins. They live in the world — you can see Clive Owen [in ‘Bourne Identity’] as a piano teacher, they have covers — but they’re essentially assassins. There was nothing that would be described as espionage, [they’re] basically a kill squad. The Outcome program that Aaron is part of, Oscar Isaac is one of them too… The conceit is that Edward Norton is the mastermind of this entire franchise. We’re stepping back a little bit in time here, he’s been a developer, he’s been at the nexus of the corporate military and intelligence communities. There’s a very large corporate element, pharmaceutical corporate element, and all of this is very, very real.
Corporate intrigue, pharmaceutical companies, that’s your bread and butter as also evinced in ‘Clayton’ and “Duplicity.”
It’s vampiric, it really is. I think it’s the dominant issue of our time. I really do. I mean absent global warming and lack of water, the development of nation states outside of our control is I think the greatest issue of our time. Ed Norton’s character is just a complete polymath, with a military background. He’s managed to achieve great power utilizing military muscle and resources, with corporate money and corporate research and the intelligence community’s need for everything. Well this other program, the program that Jeremy’s in, is a Department of Defense program. Assassination isn’t their primary objective. They haven’t just been physically enhanced, there’s a cognitive aspect to it that’s very important. They’re very, very nimble, very adaptive ,and they’re very diverse, and the things that they do are very long term and of extremely high value to the DOD.
So it’s kind of like a satellite programs?
Yeah. And there are other programs that we both allude to. Actually, the guy that’s chasing them is from a different program. If this [film] works, there’ll be a real cosmology and real mythology going forward.
And you mean sequels and keeping this new franchise going.
Yeah. And in a non-cynical way, that’s the biggest thing I think about. That’s where you start on this, you have to start from a non-cynical point of view. You couldn’t replace Matt Damon with Sam Worthington or somebody else, or do a prequel, or a lot of the crazy ideas that were floating around. They have these very cynical ideas and you have to keep reminding everybody who is getting frustrated that we couldn’t do anything cynical. I mean cynical in your day to day approach. You have to approach it like it’s really a soulful, authentic thing.
So much of the original Bourne movies is Jason’s amnesia and this morality play. But Aaron’s arc is quite different.
Yeah, he remembers everything. It would kind of be a big spoiler, but there’s a really huge moment in the movie where he and Rachel Weisz finally connect. They don’t know each other very well and they end up in a place where they can be quiet, and she asks, “Why is it so important that you stay enhanced?” The answer to that question and the things that have led him to this program. How he got there, why he’s there, is an incredible…for me as much a very powerful motive as the morality issue was for Matt Damon’s character. So it’s very, very different, he’s not morally confused at all. 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. The thing that seals the deal is you’re always looking to have fresh concepts, or some even erroneous confidence that you have some way of executing it in a way that’s going to be different.
Pushing yourself and the story a bit?
There has to be something about it that smells new. But a character has to need something. What do they need? The need, Aaron’s problem here, which again, I don’t really want to get into on a spoiler situation. It’s almost a Greek thing, he’s been given awareness. He’s been taken from darkness into the world. He’s been invested, you know, he has almost a transcendent appreciation for life. It’s not a drug movie, it’s not that he’s a junkie and wants to stay high. When he says “thank you” to her at the end it’s a pretty big statement. That’s what you look for in a character, you look for somebody who really needs something.
The enhancement elements has already become a semi-controversial issue for hardcore fans.
You know there’s a pretty rich history going back through the three films for anybody who’s really seriously been paying attention. The first guy that hits Matt in the apartment in Paris, what’s his death speech about? What is he talking about? He has some really interesting things to say. The architecture of the programming underneath is not a new concept. There’s nothing about this that we’re talking about here that isn’t coming at us really really quick. It’s just not a Marvel show at all, it’s absolutely real and anybody who spends 15 minutes at the movie and digs around online is going to find out the things that I found out, the edges of the stuff that I found. This is kind of an atlas.
One can argue it’s happening around us in sports all the time.
Oh my god, yeah. And there’s no drug testing in war. This has been going on, it’s just that now the science is finally meeting the real application of this stuff, and if you look around it’s not even restricting the kinds of things we’re talking about. There’s all kinds of programs we’re really exploring. We’re not science fiction at all. You’re looking at science in a very crude infancy here that will probably become very much a part of the future in all kinds of odd ways.
You leave it pretty wide open at the end. It seems that you’re prepared for more if need be.
There’s about 25 different ways it could go, I don’t know. I mean that’s the question we’re getting all of the time now. The idea that there’s some sort of master plan, and that we’ve talked about what will be next is crazy, there hasn’t. We don’t have it together, we’re just working so hard to get this film done. There’s no master plan about what happens next.
When it comes to writing the thing, it seems that there’s a marked difference between something like this, and something like “Michael Clayton” or “Duplicity,” which is driven by quite juicy dialogue.
I’m happy to make a character who doesn’t speak much, whatever’s right. The more you’re actually involved in movie making, really involved in it, I think the less enamored you become with dialogue. So I’m not conscious of it, I just want it to be right for what it is. Good writing is good writing and the appropriate thing for the moment.
And in terms of writing action, you’ve got action scenes that take place all over the world across the four films — Europe, North Africa, Asia. You actually go there to write, yeah?
I’d never be able to write action if I didn’t. We did that on all of these movies. ‘Identity’ I wrote about all of the things that I knew. I knew Paris really well, I lived in Europe and was very comfortable. When I was writing the script for ‘Bourne Supremacy,’ [producer] Pat Crawley and I went to Berlin and Moscow. I was writing those sequences, or sketching them anyways, while I was in the bar in Moscow, you know, at dinner, and actually revising what we were doing the next day. Then on ‘Ultimatum,’ it was even more. Pat and I went to Tangier, went to all of those rooftops in Tangier. The only place I haven’t been on these is Goa. If it’s not real I don’t see how you do it. Or at least, It’s hard to get it really good. [On the new film], on a location scout we went to Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta and Manila in the course of like 10 days and standing up there Pat was like, “This is fucking crazy, this place.”
Actually that chasm, that narrow thing [which Aaron Cross leaps down to rescue Rachel Weisz’s character, as seen in the trailer], that was actually a place we saw in Saigon and we were like ‘This would be so fucking cool to do something here. ‘ We couldn’t find it [in Manila] so we built it there. So yeah, I don’t know how you do it any other way. Otherwise, you have action sequences where you never know where you are, which is the great trend these days.
That’s a bete noir I assume?
Oh yeah, that’s absolutely my absolute obsession. I can’t stand when I’m watching something where you should be oriented and you’re not. I mean the battle sequence in “Full Metal Jacket” is a masterpiece because you’re not supposed to know where you are, and it does it in the right way. “Black Hawk Down” has the best sense of disorientation I’ve ever seen in a movie. Where you’re just like, ‘oh my god I should know where I am but I don’t., Somebody does but I never will.’ It’s on purpose. There are other movies, I won’t mention names, but there’s a lot of people right now that don’t care [about geography in action sequences].
It’s like disorientation to mask some shortcomings.
Yeah, if you’re doing a gunfight, and there’s three or four voices in the ensemble, you should know where the hell you are. There’s a great tradition of that. Kevin Costner did a great one, a great one [in “Open Range”].
The irony is these ‘Bourne’ movies ushered that aesthetic in.
I think there are much greater offenders. These films always understood the importance of gravity, and it matters greatly to me that you know where you are, and we don’t cheat, and then we still have balls.
“The Bourne Legacy” opens tomorrow, Friday August 10th in wide release.