Ten years and one day ago, Doug Liman was an independent director with a couple of critical favorites behind him. Ten years and one day ago, Matt Damon was the promising writer/star of “Good Will Hunting” who’s seemingly squandered his potential on a string of questionable movie choices, kept near A-list only by his presence in “Ocean’s Eleven” (where he tellingly only played a smaller supporting role). Ten years and one day ago, the spy genre was increasingly tired, with the Bond movies moving into new levels of ridiculousness (that year’s “Die Another Day” would introduce Madonna and invisible cars to the series).
And then came Jason Bourne. “The Bourne Identity,” directed by Liman, written by Tony Gilroy (who wrote the entire ‘Bourne’ trilogy’ and now has the keys to the franchise) and starring Damon, had been long-delayed and had a famously troubled production, but when it finally hit at the height of summer, it proved to be an invigoration of the action movie, and became a huge international hit, taking in over $200 million worldwide, and leading to two other movies starring Damon, 2004’s “The Bourne Supremacy” and 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum,” both helmed by Paul Greengrass (a new iteration, “The Bourne Legacy,” staring Jeremy Renner as the new lead and written and directed by Gilroy arrives in August).To mark the tenth anniversary of that first film, which hit theaters on June 14th, 2002, we’ve assembled five things you may not know about the original “Bourne Identity.” Check them out below.
1. The idea to make the film came from huge ‘Bourne’ fan Doug Liman himself, although he had to talk Tony Gilroy into the project.
Liman had been a fan of Robert Ludlum‘s “The Bourne Identity” since he was in high school (the first in a trilogy of books by the author, which have since been added to by seven others, by Eric Van Lustbader, after Ludlum passed away in 2001), but ended up re-reading it during the production of “Swingers” in 1996, and when that film became a big hit, the director became interested in making it into a film. The rights were tied up at Warner Bros., so Liman moved on to “Go” first, but the helmer remained interested, and soon received a tip off that the rights were about to lapse, and optioned them from Ludlum himself, flying himself to Ludlum’s home in Montana to secure those rights just days after he had earned his aviation license. As of 2008, the doorbell at Liman’s Tribeca loft read “Bourne J.”; the filmmaker was no fareweather fan of the books.
A number of writers were brought on — W. Blake Herron (“Ripley Under Ground“) was the first, and received credit, David Self (“Road To Perdition“) was involved at some point, and didn’t. Eventually, Liman went to Gilroy, then best known for “The Devil’s Advocate,” but the screenwriter decidedly wasn’t a fan of the source material, telling the New Yorker years later that “Those works were never meant to be filmed. They weren’t about human behavior. They were about running to airports. The filter that readers put on to read a certain kind of fiction is very forgiving.” Showing him the existing script didn’t help much either: Gilroy described it as “a huge fifteen-gunmen-on-the-Metro-blowing-the-fuck-out-of-everything kind of movie.” Nevertheless, Liman managed to get a meeting, and asked Gilroy what he would do, and was advised to tear up everything except the central concept. Gilroy told him, “Your movie should be about a guy who finds the only thing he knows how to do is kill people.” He was hired, and went on to co-write all three films in the original trilogy, and is directing the aforementioned new installment of the series which is mostly Jason Bourne-free.
2. The novel is wildly, wildly different from the movie.
As such, while earlier drafts had adhered closer to the Ludlum novel, Gilroy essentially started from scratch, throwing out almost all connections to the source material. Gilroy told the New Yorker, “Anything that’s from the book is in the first five minutes, in which Bourne, inexplicably, has got microfilm in his ass. Why? I don’t know! After that, when he steps off the boat, everything else is mine,” but to be fair, the connections do hang on a little longer, in terms of the basic structure; he still goes to Zurich, and takes a hostage called Marie, before moving on to Paris. But there’s more action, and a different villain, with Bourne hunted by the real-life terrorist Carlos the Jackal (who was actually captured in 1994). In the U.S, one of his operatives kills a number of Treadstone employees, including Gordon Webb, a U.S. army officer who later turns out to be Bourne’s brother. Our hero befriends a French military general, only to discover that his wife is a mole for Carlos. And by the end, Bourne is in New York, looking for Treadstone, confronted by Carlos and Alexander Conklin (the part eventually taken by Chris Cooper), who is a crippled friend of his, who has been tasked with cleaning up the mess. And at the end, it’s revealed to Marie that Bourne is really David Webb, a foreign service officer who lost his Thai wife and children in a friendly fire bombing in Cambodia. Joining a special ops team called Medusa, he killed a double agent, known as Jason Charles Bourne, taking his identity, and later became an assassin known as Cain, created as a rival to Carlos the Jackal. Thankfully, virtually all of this backstory was dumped by Gilroy. Liman was still able to put his personal stamp on things: the inner workings of Treadstone were inspired by his father, prominent attorney Arthur Liman‘s experiences, of investigating the Iran/Contra affair during the Reagan administration.
3. We could have seen Sylvester Stallone or Russell Crowe as Jason Bourne.
One of the things that set the Bourne films apart from the competition is its star. At the time, Matt Damon was not exactly recognized as an action hero, better known for softer, or more morally ambiguous turns, in films like “The Legend Of Bagger Vance” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” To see him as an unlikely killing machine was undoubtedly the film’s most impressive special effect, but it could have turned out very differently. Liman told the BBC when the film was released that he “Met with a wide range of people when casting for the film, people like Russell Crowe and even Sly Stallone at one point.” Fortunately, he went in another direction entirely, although both Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaughey were also considered before Damon came on board. It’s not the only casting couldabeen: Marie was actually Canadian in earlier drafts (as in the novel), and Liman offered the part to Sarah Polley, star of his most recent film “Go,” and now director of “Take This Waltz” and “Away From Her.” But Polley turned it down (as she had the part of Penny Lane in “Almost Famous” a few years earlier), so “Run Lola Run” lead Franka Potente ended up in the part. One veteran actress also ended up the cutting room floor: Judy Parfitt (from “Girl With A Pearl Earring” and Gilroy’s “Dolores Clairborne“) had a scene as a psychologist brought in by the CIA to evaluate Bourne from afar, but it was cut in post, although can be seen on the DVD.
4. The film had a notoriously tumultous production, with the ending in particular heavily rewritten and reshot.
The recent spate of tentpoles being heavily delayed and reshot — “World War Z,” “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Jack The Giant Killer” et al. — should take heart that heavy delays and retooling won’t necessarily prevent them from becoming huge hits and spawning franchises. Because that’s exactly what happened with “The Bourne Identity.”
Because of all the myriad problems during the production, almost everyone invovled assume ‘Identity’ was going to turn out to be an expensive bomb. “The word on Bourne was that it was supposed to be a turkey,” Damon said in a recent GQ interview. “It’s very rare that a movie comes out a year late, has four rounds of reshoots, and it’s good.” Others agree. “Oh yeah, oh man, nobody was more surprised then me,” Tony Gilroy said about how the film was ultimately salvaged and became a success in a recent interview with The Playlist (more of which you’ll see closer to the release of “The Bourne Legacy“). And as near-legendary as its problems were, apparently not all of the story has been told. “It’s a story that people have avoided talking about for a long time,” Gilroy told us.
Liman, known to be super rebellious and not taking no as an answer from studios, was upfront about the issues in a 2008 interview. “Universal hated me,” he said. “I had an archenemy in the studio. They were trying to shut me down. The producers were bad guys.” Liman came from the independent world, and was even hired on that basis, Universal hoping that he’d bring something fresh to the genre: studio chairman Stacey Snider told the Wall Street Journal at the time that “I was intrigued by the pairing of an independent-minded filmmaker with a familiar studio genre. Look, I’m a moviegoer and I’m bored. I’m getting tired of movies that all look the same.” But an extremely costly production, where Liman would flip-flop on decisions, change his mind and constantly redo scenes created a rift between Universal and the director so deep, that at points during filming, all communication was cut off and Damon had to step in as a communique emmisary. “I would be his surrogate because at least I could be heard,” Damon told Vulture in 2008, but things got so bad that when Liman would ask to reshoot a scene, producers would immediately say no.
At one point when the rebellious Liman was told he wasn’t allowed to reshoot a scene, he went rogue and shot it anyhow. “That was the huge epic screaming fight, the biggest screaming fight on the set ever,” Liman said in 2008. The fight was so bad Liman apparently explored the option of auctioning off his director’s credit on eBay.
But by his own admission, Liman was “flippant” and difficult with the studio from the get go, fighting them tooth and nail on the project. Universal’s suggestion that they shoot in Montreal for Paris led to the director’s reaction of “What are they talking about? Because they speak French in Montreal, it’s going to look like Paris? Nothing looks like Paris.” And once on set, he hired a French crew that didn’t speak English, and insisted on operating the camera himself. Liman and Gilroy fell out on set (though the writer considers it the best of the initial trilogy) over the director’s processes, Gilroy later telling the New Yorker “He didn’t have any sense of story, or cause and effect,” while Liman for his part referred to the scribe as “arrogant.”
Nevertheless, Gilroy was faxing rewrites on to set throughout production, and was involved in an extensive third-act rewrite (there had been talk of replacing him on the film, but Damon insisted that Gilroy stay on board). The studio wanted the farmhouse sequence (a mostly quiet, extended tangent) excised, and action in the ending boosted up, while taking out a fire scene that they weren’t confident that Liman would be able to deliver. The director and star successfully fought for the farmhouse, but acquiesced on the end, with the film being delayed nearly nine months, from September 7th 2001 (a date that likely would have buried the film, in retrospect) to May 31st 2002 (it was later pushed back two weeks to distance it from Damon’s other summer picture, animation “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.” Making matters worse was September 11, 2001 where everything changed — especially the nature of political spy movies with action — and the producers decided one of the major explosion sequences in the ending had to be dropped. In fact, on “The Bourne Identity” DVD producer Frank Marshall talks about the “insurance policy” new ending that was shot just in case. It’s present as an extra on the DVD in full and show Bourne meeting up with Conklin’s boss, Deputy Director Ward Abbott (Brian Cox, who he actually never meets until “The Bourne Supremacy“). The tone is wildly different from what you’ve seen in the ‘Bourne’ scenes so much so that you could never even fit them into the series continuity now (Abbot offers his help to Bourne, asks him to rejoin the CIA and when Bourne refuses, the Director essentially tells him they’ll be watching him from afar).
The reshoots took place over 10 days in two different countries, extensively reworking the last act of the film, although Julia Stiles‘ unavailability meant that her old scenes had to been incorporated into the rest. The turmoil meant that Liman wasn’t asked back for the second installment, although he’d go on to make equally fraught-with-production-problem blockbusters “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” and “Jumper.” Even though Bourne was saved — from would-be turd to $213 million worldwide — none of it would appease Universal who now owned the rights and kicked him to the curb, banning him from other sequels. “I lost my baby,” he said (Liman now has a mostly meaningless “executive producer” credit on the ‘Bourne’ films, but bringing him back into the fold would be nothing short of a miracle).
To this day rumors persist that Liman was fired after production was done and Frank Marshall and the editors finished up the film. Tellingly, Marshall, Gilroy, Damon and several other production members appear in various elements of the bountiful “The Bourne Identity” DVD extras and features, but Liman is nowhere to be seen or found.
5. The film’s actually a remake. Sort of.
The film was greeted as a breath of fresh air when it was released, but few recalled that there’d already been a version of “The Bourne Identity” on screen, albeit the small one — a 185 minute TV movie that ran on ABC across two nights in 1988. Starring Richard Chamberlain (“The Towering Inferno” “King Solomon’s Mines“) as Bourne, Jaclyn Smith (“Charlie’s Angels“) as Marie, and Donald Moffatt (“The Thing“) as Abbott, with Yorgo Voyagis, Denholm Elliott and Anthony Quayle (“Lawrence of Arabia“) in other parts, the film, directed by TV vet Roger Young and penned by Carol Sobieski (“Fried Green Tomatoes“), it’s a much more faithful adaptation of the novel, retaining Carlos as a villain. However, there are some differences — Carlos is responsible for killing Bourne’s wife and children, and in an eyebrow-raising move of “Inglourious Basterds“-esque historical inaccuracy, is killed at the conclusion of the film. It’s not terrible, as such, but is a far more staid and traditional kind of spy caper, and certainly suffers in comparison to Liman’s film. — Oliver Lyttelton and Rodrigo Perez
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