How do you keep a franchise going when its star walks out? Tony Gilroy reveals his cunning plan for Bourne 4
We are all being urged to recycle more nowadays, and Hollywood is embracing salvage so ferociously that it could become a beacon for green values. The studios have devised a new name for it: the reboot. The Amazing Spider-Man has sewn fresh legs onto Sony’s superhero stalwart; Man of Steel will attempt the same feat with Superman for Warner Bros in 2013. Dredd, Total Recall, RoboCop — all are back in new guises.
The Bourne Legacy, however, is something else entirely. Yes, it’s part of the Bourne franchise made famous by Matt Damon; and, at first glance, it looks like a brazen stab at extending the life of a brand when the original star refuses to return. You just say, hey presto, There Was Never Just One, as the tag line solemnly announces. There wasn’t just one clandestine government programme for breeding enhanced black-ops warriors, but two, three... maybe even four.
Damon refused to reprise the amnesiac assassin without the director Paul Greengrass. Enter Jeremy “Hawkeye” Renner as a new confected agent, Aaron Cross; and Tony Gilroy, who had a hand in the previous Bourne scripts, has returned to the fold. Although not before he was subjected to the vicious blows that mulish online guardians tend to rain down on any perceived Hollywood cheapening of their precious franchises.
Not a man who has ever been accused of lacking in confidence, the New York-born writer-director insists the outrage bothered him not one jot. “We were way ahead of their anxiety,” he explains, knocking back an espresso in a suite at Claridge’s. “It doesn’t affect you because we knew the people screaming the loudest were going to be the people who were happiest with what we’ve done. They have no idea what a... not a preservation project... but how careful and reverential we’ve been.”
In fact, a preservation project is precisely what The Bourne Legacy is. Gilroy is one of the chief architects of the Bourne brand — the “soul of the series”, as the producer Frank Marshall lavishly labels him — not least because little of what Bourne’s creator, Robert Ludlum, wrote ended up in Gilroy’s screenplays. He has even written the franchise bible. Deploying the shrewd intelligence of a man who adores complex characters and 1970s conspiracy thrillers — he wrote and directed the superb George Clooney film Michael Clayton — Gilroy has crafted a story that folds in, and runs concurrently with, events in the previous film, The Bourne Ultimatum, parachuting in touchstone figures (Joan Allen, Albert Finney, David Strathairn) and expanding upwards and outwards to expose a deeper conspiracy.
It took some coaxing. After Damon and Greengrass declared themselves unavailable, and with Universal desperately spitballing ideas about ways to carry on regardless, Gilroy agreed to a meeting with Ludlum’s estate, “because I didn’t want to be rude”. He had severed his ties to Bourne after a rancorous collaboration with Greengrass on the second film, Supremacy.
“It’s no secret that Paul and I just didn’t get along,” he says. “His method of making movies completely works for him. If you’re the writer, you’re into planning and building. That’s not how Paul works. It was a culture clash.” Having delivered an Ultimatum draft on the understanding that he wouldn’t have to speak to Greengrass, he left to make Michael Clayton and never looked back. He hadn’t even seen the third film when he met the Ludlum estate.
Reluctance melted before the “daunting” challenge of conceiving a character as compelling as Bourne. “I thought, ‘If I can’t do this, they’ll get a bunch of other writers and something cheesy or craptastic will come out of it,’” Gilroy says. “But I got lucky.”
Rather than erase Bourne, Gilroy opted to blow the walls off, revealing a parallel advanced intelligence programme called Outcome. In danger of being exposed by Bourne’s actions in Ultimatum, its six chemically enhanced members are targeted for elimination as a precaution. Among them is Aaron Cross (Renner), who goes on the run to find a research scientist (Rachel Weisz) in the programme who can give him the medication that he needs.
Cross does not share Bourne’s moral compunction, which makes him more lethal, but also potentially less sympathetic. That’s where Renner’s skills come into play. Gilroy is effusive about his star, whose availability late in the day potentially spared a few blushes. Legacy also pays a kind of homage to its predecessor with a frantic rooftop and motorcycle chase through a Third World metropolis, although the film’s insane 17-minute Manila pursuit truly pushes the envelope.
The bar is set high for Bourne set pieces — Gilroy and Universal had to raise it. “I think the difference for us, and the biggest change overall, is that I’m a freak for action that lets you know where you are,” he says. That sounds like a not-so-subtle dig at Greengrass. “I’m pleased I like my movie,” he hedges. “The glory wasn’t a big motivator.”
Gilroy says he never considered asking Damon to appear in a cameo in Legacy, fearing it would drag the film into a cheesy realm. “That was the smell I wanted to avoid, even if he’d been gettable,” he notes, adding: “I haven’t spoken to Matt in a long time.” Yet Bourne’s shadow looms large in the $130m (£83m) film: he is witnessed in classified dossiers and name-dropped in conversations; his name is carved into the wood of an Alaskan cabin. All is set up for Damon’s return.
That is assuming audiences buy Legacy wholesale. The studio’s favoured option would surely be for Damon and Renner to combine forces for Bourne 5. When Marshall declared this recently as his dream scenario, Gilroy had a press release thrust into his hands the next day by a salivating executive, announcing it as a done deal. “I went, ‘What are you talking about?’” He groans. “If everything goes right, there will be a lot of talking. But I can’t imagine needing or wanting to do this again right away.”