This week will finally see the answer to one of Hollywood’s great questions: will audiences watch a ‘Bourne’ movie without Matt Damon? The answer will be provided by Tony Gilroy‘s “The Bourne Legacy,” the first of what could be a potential franchise starring Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, a similar agent to Jason Bourne, but a product of the Department of Defense’s Operation Outcome, a different training program from the CIA’s Treadstone. Gilroy is no stranger to the ‘Bourne’ franchise, having been a writer or co-writer on all three installments, but once Damon and “Bourne Supremacy” and “Bourne Ultimatum” director Paul Greengrass decided against returning, he was tasked with creating what producer Frank Marshall called a “same-time-quel.”
We recently sat in during the “The Bourne Legacy” press conference in Beverly Hills, California, attended by writer/director Tony Gilroy and co-writer (and brother) Dan Gilroy, Marshall and fellow producer Patrick Crowley, as well as cast members Renner, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton. Here’s what we learned about the action sequence, the story and the production that took them around the world.
1. The ‘Bourne’ movies are based on reality. Really.
Well, sort of, anyway. ‘Legacy’ pulls back the curtain on the pharmaceutical nature of the Treadstone and Outcome training programs, which are apparently fictionalized versions of real programs. In Universal’s press notes, attention is given to Gilroy’s research process, which focused on government projects like DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) that are looking for ways to improve the modern soldier. “There’s no drug testing in war,” said Gilroy in the notes. “There’s a very real appetite to have soldiers with increased energy, higher pain thresholds, and less need for sleep.”
During the press conference, Crowley backed up Gilroy’s claims and revealed that there is a ring of truth to the training programs in the ‘Bourne’ films. “I remember talking with Tony, even back in ‘Supremacy’ [days]. Tony has this intense obsession with the American intelligence community to which he literally said, ‘You know, there’s Treadstone, but there’s a whole bunch of others,'” said Crowley. “And the research that he’s done, there are a while lot of parallel agencies. The Department of Defense has got one, National Security’s got one, each one of the services has something, so it actually is the way that these organizations are structured.”
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2. Coming up with the story for ‘Legacy’ was like a game.
Gilroy admitted that directing ‘Legacy’ was not something he “ever, ever, ever” thought he would do, but yearned to “do a big movie.” Once Universal asked Gilroy to come up with a story for another ‘Bourne,’ the director admitted that the process was much like playing a game.
“You know, they tried for a long time – a lot of smart people tried to figure out how to go forward after ‘Ultimatum’ because it wrapped up so beautifully,” Gilroy admitted. “Such a nice package. I was never a part of that. I’m not sure I could have figured out anything else to do with that. By the time everybody had left, and the party was sort of over, they started a second round of ‘What do we do post-Bourne?’ The first conversation was really like a game. It was really, like, how can we go forward…’You could say that there was a much larger conspiracy. You could say that that was only a small piece of this thing.’ So that’s a sexy idea. Everybody gets involved in that; everybody likes that idea. ‘God, you know what else you could do? You could have ‘Ultimatum’ play in the background of the first 12-15 minutes of the movie. There could be a phone call from the other movie to our movie!’ Everybody gets very excited. And even Danny [Gilroy] got excited. But it’s not the real deal, you know there’s no movie — all that’s very sexy, it’s like a beautiful shell. I didn’t get really interested, even in writing a script on it much less directing it, until the character dropped in the slot, when the character came through and we suddenly realized there was a character that had as fundamental an issue, as fundamental a problem, as much meat on the bone as there was for Jason Bourne…that’s when it really got interesting. That’s when Danny and I started talking to each other 19 times on the phone instead of once a day.”
Dan Gilroy concurred. “The mythology of the first franchise sort of allowed itself to be expanded upon. It was interesting to sort of shift the angle on it and say, ‘This was going on simultaneously’ and there was enough real estate and open space that you could fill in a pretty interesting backdrop and future for the franchise.”
Tony added: “It was to fun to put them together and see if everything worked. And for the people that are the super-freak fans, there’s a lot of dissecting enjoyment.”
3. ‘Bourne’ movies usually involve a trip overseas.
Anyone that’s seen the ‘Bourne’ movies knows that exotic locations often provide a backdrop to the action, and Marshall said that, “One of the things we always do on these movies, or we have done on all four, is Tony takes a trip with Pat to several different places before he starts to write the script. We have sort of an area in mind for where a sequence is going to take place.”
For ‘Legacy,’ that place was Manila, which offered the best situation for some of the movie’s action sequences. “In the past we’ve gone to India, we’ve been to Moscow, we’ve been to Morrocco, and, on this one, Tony said, ‘You know, we’re going to go to Asia this time,’ ” explained Crowley. “And so we went to Jakarta, and we went to Manila and we went to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, to check those places to see which one would win the competition. And Manila was the winner because they really do have a lot of experience and a good infrastructure that allows us to do the kinds of complicated things that you see in the movie. If you’re going to shut down highways and have huge car crashes and do the kind of mayhem that we do, then you need to know that the city government or the national government are going to understand what the filmmakers are asking and that you’re going to come up with the best possible solution. That’s what sort of made our choice for Manila.”
4. Renner was chosen for the movie because he was “unpolished.”
“We looked at a number of people when we very first started out and I think we kept coming back to Jeremy,” said Crowley when asked what is was about Renner that made him the right actor for the role. “There’s an accessibility to him, there’s a vulnerability to him which maybe a more polished actor might not communicate to the audience, and his physicality made a huge difference to us. Because that allowed us to be able to put him in situations in which you could see him fight, or you could see him ride a motorcycle, that with other people you just have to do green screen or some kind of face replacement in order to cover up the fact that you didn’t have the right guy. And also, audiences haven’t formed their opinion about Jeremy Renner. He’s still sort of evolving from the audience’s perception: ‘Who is this guy? What does he bring? I like him, but I don’t know why I want to see more of him.’ “
Marshall concurred. “Yeah, I also think he brings an intelligence to the role that you just see. And also his physicality. As Tony says, he’s sort of a movie athlete. I mean, he’s extraordinary. Those moves that he makes, it almost looks like you’re speeding the camera up but we weren’t.”
5. Cold is cold no matter who you are, but especially if you’re Tony Gilroy.
Another of the film’s locations is Alaska (or Calgary, if you want to get technical), where, in the film’s opening sequence, Renner’s Cross is seen emerging from icy cold waters. When asked about how he handled the cold conditions, the actor’s response was simple. “Cold’s cold no matter if you’re holding the camera or if you’re in front of it,” answered Renner. “You don’t ask for that kind of physical torture, but it’s certainly very telling and makes it easier to play, because it’s part of the scene. We weren’t shooting in the Rockies and pretending its summer. It was cold because it’s supposed to be. The only thing that was really challenging was that I’m supposed to be a tough guy and be able to fake, ‘Oh yeah, it’s not cold but I’m freezing. I can’t be freezing.’ It was just another one of those challenges to overcome. It wasn’t easy, but it was beautiful and it became a character in itself, I think.”
“It slows your brain down,” added Gilroy. “It saps you energy over the course of a day. I had to buy all the clothes, I didn’t own all that stuff, I’m not a skier.”
“You never saw his face, he was [all] wrapped [up],” chided Renner. “He had batteries in his gloves, he had the heated underwear, he had everything that could be powered, on. Asking me to jump into the water naked. He did say, however, that he was willing to do it with me.”
“I did say that,” said Gilroy. “I didn’t mean it…”
6. Gilroy likes to write action for a location.
Once the locations were settled on for ‘Legacy,’ Gilroy could then start writing the action scenes. One of his secrets for writing a successful action sequence was “writing to a location.” Gilroy explained: “The secret is saying, ‘here is where we are.’ Whether it’s a street, or whether it’s a set, or whether it’s Monument Valley or wherever it is. And step by step, rigorously writing a script. Writing into every moment. And not faking anything and not cutting any corners. It’s just attention to detail. It’s stitch after stitch after stitch. There’s no shortcut. It’s the same thing as writing behavior. If you want to write a character’s behavior, a lot of times you want a shortcut and say, ‘God I really want to have him do this,’ or ‘I want to have him do that.’ You really have to get inside every single goddamn one of them and go, ‘What would I do if I was this person.’ What are the things I might do next?’ If I’ve got a gun and you put somebody in and they’re hiding here, and someone’s over there and someone’s over there, there are certain things that have to happen, and if you use the limitations as your friend, it always comes out on top.”
One particular action sequence takes places in Marta’s house, which is in the midst of a renovation, and Gilroy said that the scene went through “a dozen drafts” before he was satisfied. “It’s the same thing that all these great actors do, every performance that they calibrate along the way, it’s the same thing on a macro level with choreography,” said Gilroy. “The scene in the house went through a dozen drafts. We finally, by the tenth pass, we were sending back diagrams of what the house looks like, and then we redesigned the house and there’s a hole in the floor…and then you rebuild the set to what you need. It’s just trying to be as bespoke as possible all the time.”
Another one of Gilroy’s secrets was to make sure that the audience knew where they were during the action. “When you get to the action, it has to have the maximum testosterone and energy it possibly can,” explained Gilroy. “There’s a lot of ways to do that. I like knowing where I am in action sequences…A lot of attention went into that: ‘How can we keep the energy up and orient people?’ All the conversations and all the anxiety, by the third day we were shooting, the residue of that is what carried through for the next 100 days.”
7. Renner’s biggest challenge was not getting hurt.
It would seem that carrying a well-known franchise might be the biggest hurdle to overcome, but according to Renner, the hardest part of playing Aaron Cross was simply “not getting hurt,” which was a challenge since Renner did a lot of his own stunt work. “Pretty much I can’t get injured,” said Renner. “I wanted to do as much as I could. Because of the responsibility of the authenticity of the three films prior, it would do a great injustice and disservice to this film if I could not perform what was required, and I like those challenges. I like those physical obstacles. And outside of that, it’s a job. Page 1 to 120. Tremendous cast and directors and writing, and it was exciting to go to work.”
At least physically, Renner said that he didn’t get injured beyond a few bumps and bruises. “I hurt my feelings here and there,” the actor quipped. “You get banged up a little bit, but if you don’t get banged up, you’re not working hard enough, in my mind. But I never got injured so much that it stopped me from doing what I had to do.”
8. Directing action scenes is not unlike being a six-year-old or having children.
Another major action sequence in ‘Legacy’ is an extended motorcycle chase sequence where Cross and Marta are pursued on two wheels through the streets of Manila. While Gilroy couldn’t exactly remember how long it took to shoot the sequence (though, in a recent featurette, Gilroy says it took months), he said that planning out the sequence was not to different from playing like a six-year-old or like having kids.
“I know that even before we had the script finished, I sat down with Dan Bradley — who’d done the other films [as a] second unit director and stunt coordinator and much more than all of that — and I said, ‘Look, here’s what’s coming up, and I need you desperately.’ And we started conversations right then. And it goes from the very first preamble conversation of what’s the best motorcycle chase that’s ever been done and why doesn’t anybody do it and why are they all limited in some way and how can we make it better,” he explained. “And it goes from there to a script to visiting Manila and plotting out the places where we’re going to do it, and then it gets down to Dan Bradley and a bunch of grown men sitting around a table with Matchbox cars going, ‘And he’s going to go here, and that’s going to go here and he’s going to spin out!’ It’s play — it’s six-year-olds playing underneath the Christmas tree all the way to guys with welders and chainsaws in a shop in Manila building the rigs to make it. If you thought about it all at once, you’d never do it.”
“It’s like having kids,” Gilroy continued. “If you knew what you were into, you’d go, ‘Forget it, I can’t handle it.’ But, all of a sudden, you’re pregnant. And then the kid is there and you gotta feed him and put clothes on him. It’s just one stupid little step after another, and then you get to the end and you go, ‘Wow, what did we do?’ “
9. For one particular sequence Weisz’s real fear was all the acting that was required.
Speaking of that motorcycle sequence, Weisz admitted that she didn’t need to do much acting in it, as she was already terrified riding around and holding onto Renner for most of the scene. “Actually, Jeremy told me today — it was very sweet, he never told me when we were in Manila — that that was the scariest stunt for him because he was responsible for my life,” said Weisz. “Which he was. He didn’t tell me that in Manila. Thank God, because I would have been like, ‘Oh my God, if he’s scared, then…’ I just had to surrender, I just had to hold on. But I didn’t have to act, it just was terrifying.”
10. Given the choice, Jeremy Renner would rather fight The Hulk than Jason Bourne.
One the questions put to the cast was whether they would like face either Jason Bourne or Aaron Cross in a fight. As Weisz struggled to come up with an answer, Norton interjected. “This might be one of those moments where we remind somebody abut the fine line between what is real and what’s imagined.”
After the laughter died down, Renner said, “I’ll take the Hulk,” which got another laugh. While it’s possible that Renner was referencing Norton, who played Bruce Banner in “The Incredible Hulk,” it seemed more like he was talking about his “The Avengers” co-star in an attempt to not choose between the two agents.
Then Weisz quipped, “Yeah, anything to do a scene with Mark Ruffalo, right?”
“The Bourne Legacy” opens this Friday.