The initial meetings for "The Bourne Legacy" presented Tony Gilroy -- who had written the screenplays for the first three Jason Bourne movies and would eventually write and direct this fourth installment -- with a unique problem. How does one go about making a fourth movie in a franchise without the guy who plays the title character (portrayed memorably by the very famous Matt Damon)? Gilroy's solution: "The Bourne Legacy," a movie that does not feature Jason Bourne (though the characters sure do talk about him a lot), is neither a prequel nor a sequel. Instead, "The Bourne Legacy" occurs concurrently with the events depicted in "The Bourne Ultimatum."
In "The Bourne Legacy," Jeremy Renner plays Aaron Cross -- a medically enhanced super agent who survives the government purge of his program after it gets discontinued by Eric Byer (Edward Norton) in the wake of prior Jason Bourne adventures. Unfortunately, Cross' abilities -- cognitive and physical -- depend on a daily dosage of medication that he no longer has access to, which is why he must find Dr. Marta Shearling (Rachel Weisz), who's in quite a bit of danger herself.
Here, Gilroy describes the challenges of making a fourth film without the star of the first three, explains why "The Bourne Legacy" happens within the "Bourne Ultimatum" timeline, and -- now that he knows the challenges of directing a Bourne movie himself -- says whether his feelings toward Doug Liman (the director of "The Bourne Identity") and Paul Greengrass (director of "The Bourne Supremacy" and "Ultimatum"), two men that he clashed with in the past, have changed.
With the amnesia element not present as it was in the Matt Damon movies, it feels like Aaron Cross' mission is a little more straightforward.
Well, he doesn't start the film knowing what he's up against. I mean, he's not morally conflicted. His problem is hopefully as fundamental. And that was big exercise, to find a problem -- and issue for him -- that was as potent as what we had with Jason Bourne. And it's very different. He has a very, very different problem. It's not a moral problem; it's not a problem of identity -- he knows exactly who he is and exactly where he came from. His problem is that he'd rather not return there. It's also a film about survival.
What were the challenges in coming up with the problem? I've heard you say in the past that the amnesia aspect of Jason Bourne was what you thought made him interesting. That he was like us, but not like us at the same time. Aaron Cross is not like us.
Well, I disagree with that. This was as personal -- in many ways, this was easier to relate to, for me, than Jason Bourne.
That's interesting. Why? Unlike Bourne, Aaron Cross is on medication that gives him extraordinary intelligence and strength. Which is why I mentioned that he's not like us.
Well, there's nothing really sci-fi about it -- we're not leaning into that very hard. And the things that have changed about him are very, very small changes. But the really fundamental issue isn't really the physical issue at all. It's much more about being who you are and it's not really ... he's not high. It's not a drug experience. His problem is -- and it's a conversation that, quite honestly, he never gets to have and we never get to have with the audience because survival is first and foremost. But, the deeper conversation that could be had once they survive is, you know, would you want to give up who you are? You are who you are right now. The world means what it means to you, and you have your appreciation and transcendent understanding of life -- and would you want to put in a bunch of 40-watt bulbs all of a sudden? That's what he's facing. It's not a matter of wanting to be more or wanting to be high -- anything other than being who he is.
When did you come up with the idea for the pills that lead to higher performance levels? Because we obviously didn't see that with Jason Bourne.
You know, we never really completely say what the sum total of the previous programs were. There's a lot of little bread crumbs for anybody who's digging really deep and for the super fans back there. I'm sure people will dig back through the mythology of the earlier films and find some things that are pretty interesting that call into this. But, it's a different program than Jason Bourne was involved in -- an earlier program than the Outcome Program that Aaron Cross was part of. When I found the idea, the stages of interest for me was sort of a problem-solving game in the beginning. They've run out of road and a lot of people were trying to figure out how they could possibly go forward without Matt and without Jason Bourne. And the idea of, "What if it was part of something much larger?" That's one interesting idea. And if there's a larger conspiracy -- and we thought in a sketchy kind of way what that would be like -- the next thing is, "Wow, that's really cool. We could actually play, in fact we have an obligation to play, 'The Bourne Ultimatum' for the first 12 or 15 minutes of our film in the background."
That's a very interesting aspect, that this film takes place during "Ultimatum."
And no one has ever done it before. And not because we are so smart or so cool, no one has ever had an opportunity to do that before. If you think about it, episodic filmmaking has not been something that people have really done. We're entering that new phase now as these movies get so huge. Those were really interesting, fun, sexy ideas -- and they got everybody very interested. But it was all restaurant and no meal. The real thing you need is the character. So, at some point, playing around with those ideas and sort of working for a week or two on it, all of a sudden this character came into view. If you say it's "magical" or "mystical," it sounds full of shit. But, all of a sudden, it's one of those inspiring moments -- and you get a couple of them along the way. You go, "Wow, look at this. I haven't quite seen this before and it means something to me." It feels fundamental; it feels important; it feels fresh. And it's absolutely germane to what we're talking about.
Where were you in the process when you found out Matt Damon would not be coming back?
Oh, no, no. I was way out, years out of the conversation. My involvement with "Ultimatum" ended when I turned in the script and went to work on Michael Clayton. I was really outside of it. Years go by and I think a lot of people try to figure out on how to continue with Jason Bourne and they finally just had enough and they all walked away. And it was sometime after that that I got a call to just have a meeting -- just as a problem-solver. Was there any way to go forward? That's where the conversation started. So it was never anything that I anticipated -- I was never part of the effort to continue the series with Matt. When it came to me, he and Paul were officially long gone.
Did you always want to direct it, too? I know you had your differences with both Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass. So was it, "I'll do this, but I'm in charge"?
No, not at all. In these early stages, I didn't even really think I'd be writing it. I really thought I'd come in for a couple of weeks and, you know, writers do that all of the time -- maybe come in to work on a scene or work on the ending or work on a piece of something. If you can deliver on that, you get paid handsomely to come in and do that. So it really started off as a very casual, "I've got a couple of weeks free to play with this." Then it got more interesting. And it got interesting enough that I said, "God, you know, let me write a treatment." And, you know, it got really hot. When the character dropped in the slot for me, I was like, "Wow, this might be something that's really ... If you're looking for something that's worth it to spend two years of your life on, there might be enough here to play with the big toy box." It's insane to make a decision like that based on anybody else. It was never any idea of any other directors or trying live up or show up or anything like that. It's far too large of a commitment to base it on something like that.
I've read that you haven't seen The Bourne Ultimatum. I assume that's changed?
I did, actually. That was the first meeting, when I met with the estate for the very first conversation, they were looking for stuff to do. And my way of getting out of of the meeting [laughs] was to say, "You know what I'll do? I haven't seen 'Ultimatum,' I haven't seen the whole thing -- I've seen bits and pieces. If I think of anything, I'll give you a call." And a couple of weeks later, that's when I made the first call.
I spoke to Matt Damon at Comic-Con and in reference to "The Bourne Ultimatum," he said that shoot took years off of his life.
I have no idea what they went through. I have no way of comparing.
In general, was it a happy environment?
Yeah, we run a very tucked-away show. I mean, all three movies I've done, I'm very much a preparatory director. We have a very tucked-away script. Different people work different ways. I like to have everything extremely buttoned-down so that we can get crazy on the day. I don't like to be crazy on different levels all of the time.
Now that you've directed a Bourne movie, do you have more empathy toward Liman or Greengrass? Do you see any of their points better that you didn't agree with before?
I wouldn't say anything specifically -- any specific thing to them. I think when you go through one of these really big movies, I have a lot more respect for the Ridleys, the James Camerons and the Spielbergs -- people that really manage these big shows. People that really run them in an organized fashion and have department heads that they consistently work with. I have much more respect and appreciation for what that means.
Do you want to direct another action movie? "The Bourne Legacy" is very different than "Michael Clayton."
[Laughs] I would say so, yes. There are more cuts in the seventh reel of this film than all of "Michael Clayton."
Well, as I was saying that, I remembered a car did explode in "Michael Clayton." So there is some.
There was one explosion. I blew up a car -- that was my big scene. I really don't know what I will do. I really don't. It's either something that you check off your list and say, "Done that, what's next?" Or you wake up next year and go, "Wow, I really miss not having all of the toys and I want to work big, I miss it." Right now, my skin is off. We just finished ten days ago and I have no idea what I'll do next.
Frank Marshall stated that he wants to have Matt Damon and Jeremy Renner back for a fifth movie. To be fair, I get the vibe Damon might not be interested. But if there's a chance, does writing that script interest you?
You know, Frank said that as a dream. Then, two days later it was reported it was happening. That's just radioactive territory. The only thing I can say, and it's so hard to get anyone to believe you: There have been no conversations in any substantive -- or almost even in a casual manner along the way -- of how we would proceed. I wanted to make sure, from the very first day I started on this movie, that Jason Bourne was alive in this world and that Matt Damon was never replaced. And I don't think there was anybody who was more interested in serving the quality and integrity of what had happened before. What goes forward after that? I have no clue.
Do you have basic ideas of what could happen to Aaron Cross next?
I mean, we try to leave ourselves in the position where I could give you 30 different movies. I could tell you 30 different things that we could do off of this. I mean, it's all pie-in-the-sky, though. The audience will speak in the next couple of months, and then everybody will refresh their eyes and their ears and we will see where we are.
So no commitments, but you could see yourself continuing with this character?
I have no obligation to do that, no. Really, the only people they need to return to make these movies -- they need the actors. That's the only thing they need.
Well, is that even the case?
If they're going to do a Jason Bourne movie, they need Matt Damon. If they're going to do an Aaron Cross movie, they need Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz. That's what they need. They need Edward Norton no matter what they do at this point. Those are the only things that they need. They don't need me.
The world needs more Edward Norton.
Oh my God, I know.
Mike Ryan is senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post. You can contact him directly on Twitter.