Matt Damon was tired of Jason Bourne, director Paul Greengrass moved on, and a mega-successful movie franchise looked finish. Enter Tony Gilroy — who scripted the first two of the original Bourne trilogy — to find a new Jason and chart a new course for Robert Ludlum’s fictional thrillers in The Bourne Legacy. The director of Duplicity and Michael Clayton talks about the challenge of the big chair on set …
Many of your recent scripts, from the Bourne films to Duplicity and Michael Clayton, have been about deceptions and hidden identities. What is it that attracts you to those themes?
God, they’re inherently dramatic, aren’t they? I don’t know the answer as far as what draws me to that — I don’t have a lot of that stuff going on in my personal life, or at least I don’t think so. That’s a very un-substantive answer to a question I should probably spend more time analysing. I don’t think about it too much because when I write, that’s not where I start — I start with characters and let them take me where they’re going. I think the idea of people in conflict, the idea of people not getting along, is intrinsically dramatic. It’s very difficult to write scenes of happiness and satisfaction. I think most dramatists attracted to the idea of things going wrong, and I think deception is a very fertile piece of ground to dig out that particular conflict.
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One thing I really appreciate about your scripts is that you’re never afraid to hit the audience with big words like “metastasise” — I assume it’s important to you not to treat them like babies?
I’m trying, all the time, to find things that are of interest to me and also of interest to an audience on the scale of what the project is. When you make a movie like Michael Clayton, you’re making it very cheaply, you’re making it independently and you have no adult supervision, you have one set of rules. I was trying, when I tiptoed onto this Bourne project, to find some big ideas that would keep me interested for two years, and that would be satisfying to an audience. If you’re really kicking ass and you’re really raising people’s pulse, if you’re getting them deeply involved in the story and making them wonder what’s going to happen next, there’s no reason why you have to have your IQ to do that.
The plots of your movies are extremely intricate, with a lot of things going on at any one time — does that make for a lengthy drafting process?
You know, I find the scripts that really work go quickly. There are exceptions to that — Michael Clayton stopped and started for a long time, although when it finally did get going, it went very quickly. This wasn’t one that we started, put down, and picked up again — it was a two-year obsession. The story dropped into place in a very quick, clean fashion that as a writer, gives you a great deal of fundamental satisfaction. You just get a real gut feeling when you know the story is round and it’s in the slot. You know you’re going to have an incredible amount of work to do to get it finished, but the fundamental ideas are all there. This script was not the most difficult thing to write, it had its own momentum.
Matt Damon brought simultaneously tough and vulnerable qualities to Jason Bourne, and Jeremy Renner brings similar things to Aaron Cross — did you always know you wanted him?
No, we conducted a very lengthy, public search for a long time. Jeremy wasn’t available for the first two waves of all that. We ran around and auditioned a lot of people, spoke to a lot of people, screen tested people, got very interested in some people. The bar was high and the requirements were enormous — we really needed to pick the right person. Late in the process, The Avengers tightened up their schedule, and all of a sudden Jeremy was available. We were immediately interested. Frank Marshall and I ran right over to Germany to throw a script at him and have a conversation with him.
You said before that you start with characters — was it the character of Aaron Cross that made the idea of The Bourne Legacy exciting for you?
Yeah, I sort of backed into this long after everyone had initially walked away. I really wasn’t involved in the Bourne world at all, but I had a very casual meeting, long after Matt and Paul had left. They were talking to a lot of people, trying to find a way that they could continue the movies post-Jason Bourne. I sort of tiptoed into it with this idea that the next film could be about a larger conspiracy, with the story of The Bourne Ultimatum playing out at the beginning of the picture, and acting as the spark of what’s happening. The threat of public exposure was the idea. The people on the business end were very excited about those ideas, but it’s like having a beautiful boat with no motor in it — there’s nowhere to go. The place where it got most interesting for me, the place where I started to get involved in a real way and decided I might actually be interested in writing and directing, was when the character of Aaron Cross started to emerge. I never thought there would be an equivalent character to Jason Bourne, a character whose problem was as interesting, but Aaron Cross became that character. When I’m writing, everything comes from the character. I never start with a plot or a larger idea or a theme, it’s always about an individual who wants something desperately, who needs something.
Edward Norton’s character, the CIA operative Eric Byer, is very sinister, precisely because he’s not your obvious villain. He’s just a normal guy, and he often falls back on telling people he’s a patriot. Can you tell me about creating and shaping that character?
I think if you’re writing well, you believe in every person you’re writing. You’re never outside the character — you’re in it with them. I’ve never really written a villain that I thought was an external, opaque character without a point of view. I’d have a lot of trouble writing that character, and actors would have a lot of trouble playing it. Eric Byer is a guy who really has his eyes wide open; he’s a brilliant guy who really believes that somebody has to carry the bodies out of the town square in the dark of night so that everybody else can be safe. In America, you want to be safe, you want your family to be safe, even if you’re conflicted about some of the things you’re tacitly condoning to make that happen. He’s a living expression of that, and it would have been unfortunate to have a character like that and not have the opportunity get into some of those ideas.
The car chase through Manila at the end is pretty spectacular — I imagine it must be both fun and extremely challenging to direct a sequence like that?
It was great. You have to love action, and there’s no incredible secret to how it’s done. You need to have the right people around you, including a great second-unit director, you need to have enough money, and you need to begin planning it a very long time in advance. I like to do things very specifically, tailored to the location. I did a film called Proof Of Life, and that had the best action sequence I’d ever been involved with at that point. We really built it to a location, and to a very specific set of circumstances. I like to go to these real places and make a bespoke sequence that really uses both the possibilities and the limitations of the environment.
Did setting up this scene and shooting in Manila involve spending a lot of time there?
I went to Manila quite a bit, took many trips, and did lots and lots of thinking and exploration. The whole thing felt kind of like a military operation. If you look at the whole sequence when it’d done, it seems overwhelming, but actually, actually came together very slowly, piece-by-piece. You just have to go beat by beat by beat. Directing a car chase like that is really quite fun. You get to be seven years old again and smash little cars together, but you get to do it onscreen.
Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz in The Bourne Legacy
I spotted at least two actors from Damages in The Bourne Legacy — are you a fan of that show, or is that just a coincidence?
I’m not aware of the full connection there, actually. I’m not up on my Damages. Who do you have?
Well, you have Željko Ivanek — the characters he plays always seem to get shot in the head, which is quite unfortunate for him. There’s another actress, too. Let me see …
I think the connection between them is probably more New York than being part of the Damages cast, I’d say. Our film was based out of New York, so we were able to deal with the New York talent pool. There’s an amazing bunch of actors there, a lot of people who aren’t working as much as they should, and we’re always looking for fresh and great, so we spent a lot of time casting. We cared as much about that as anything. If there’s any connection, it’s just that they’re great New York actors and Damages also picked up on that.
Donna Murphy is the other one.
Oh, Donna Murphy is great! She has two Tony awards — she’s one of the great interpreters of Stephen Sondheim. She’s a big Broadway musical theatre star.
Do you see this film as potentially the beginning of a new Bourne trilogy with Jeremy Renner?
I don’t know exactly. There’s no master plan for what’s going to happen there. I mean, one thing that was very important to us is that we wanted to make a movie that could stand strongly on its own — you don’t necessarily need to know anything about the previous three to get something out of this one. We’ve road-tested it to make sure it works that way. We also wanted something that would preserve the spirit of the past, something that the true fans would be able to dig back into. We also wanted to leave ourselves in a place where the mythology we’d created could move in a bunch of different directions. The audience is going to get their hands on this movie in a very short period of time, and I think it’s the audience who’ll tell everybody what should happen.
People will be seeing the movie very soon — how are you feeling at the moment? Are you a little nervous, or are you at peace?
No, no, I’m not nervous. I mean, you want to like your movie. A month or so, I got to the place where I liked my movie, and that’s where you’ve got to be. The rest of it is very exciting.
I’m a little embarrassed, but I have to tell you, The Cutting Edge is one of my all-time favourite movies. Do you still think fondly of that one, seeing it was the first script you had produced?
I do. It’s so funny, because it’s come up a bunch. I think a lot of the journalists I’m talking to now were around the same age when it came out, and it had a similar effect on them. It’s the first movie I ever had made. I’d written a whole lot of scripts at that point, I was starting to get a reputation going, but I’d never had a movie made, and I was desperate to. A guy came to me who’d read another script of mine and said “I want to do a figure skating movie, and I love the relationship that you created in this script, so if you can give me that in a figure skating movie, I’ll make it for you”. I was a little bit dubious at the idea of a figure skating movie, but he promised he’d make it if I did what he wanted. He was a great guy, very true to his word, and it was a great experience. To produce an original screenplay and actually have it made, that’s huge when you’re an up-and-coming writer. That was a very important thing for me.
When you were younger, was there any particular movie that inspired you, or one that always made you think “I wish I’d written that”?
Oh man, these questions are the hardest questions of all. I can never name one film. I loved movies as an audience member when I was a kid. I didn’t start doing this until my mid ’20s — I grew up with a screenwriter father, but the idea of being a screenwriter myself was never even on my radar as something I’d be involved in. There were 12 or 15 years when I was really obsessive and saw everything in a way I don’t anymore and probably should. Think of the movies that came out between 1967 and 1982 and there probably isn’t anything in there that I don’t like. Those movies of the ’70s, up and down and all the way through, I love them. I mean, I’m literally picking at random here, but I took a long flight to get to Australia, and amazingly, they had Klute on the Qantas plane. Those movies and that whole era of filmmaking in general is the North Star for me.
Are you thinking about those classic ’70s films when it comes to your own filmmaking?
What I want when I go to the movie theatre is I want to completely check out. I want to forget about everything else and just let the movie take me somewhere. I don’t want to see anything else — I don’t want to see off the edges of the screen, I want to be completely immersed. I want to be there for two hours and really feel affected by what I’m watching. Extra credit if I’m still thinking about it two day later, or if I have an argument about it with somebody else. The final thing is if you want to see it again later on and see if there’s anything else to get out of it. I’m just incredibly hopeful that people, with my movie, that people will check in for two hours and that they’ll be completely there.
*Alasdair Duncan is a Brisbane-based author, freelance writer and music journalist