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.
Opening Friday, “The Bourne Legacy"is Universal Pictures’ 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.
“We had every conversation that you can imagine,” said Ben Smith, a producer at Captivate.
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.
The studio wants the new film to succeed not only as a stand-alone production but also as the first entry in a potential cycle of movies. But Universal has struggled to create a separate identity for “The Bourne Legacy,” which focuses on a clandestine program 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.”
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.
“Everybody was excited to do another one,” said Frank Marshall, who’s produced all the “Bourne” films, including Gilroy’s new entry. “But the question became, ‘What’s the story?’”
He wasn’t the only one who wondered about that.
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 (who penned the new “RoboCop” remake) was equally unsuccessful in the producers’ eyes. A number of other writers pitched ideas, “and nothing really clicked,” Marshall said.
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 favor, 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?”
A new Outcome
If the CIA had its secret Treadstone program in the “Bourne” movies, what if the Department of Defense 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 program, Cross recruits a research scientist (Rachel Weisz) to outfox the secret agency headed by Eric Boyer (Edward Norton Jr.) that runs the Department of Defense 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, who researched the subject intensely and ultimately decided he wanted to direct the $130-million production, 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.”
A number of other actors were considered for the lead role, including Oscar Isaac (who has a part in the film), Garrett Hedlund, Joel Edgerton and Colin Farrell. While Renner was initially considered too old for the part, the filmmakers decided he was the right choice after meeting the now-41-year-old on the Berlin set of his “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.”
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 organized 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.”