Why Tony Gilroy Returned To Helm Bourne Legacy, His Children Of Men Inspiration, And Writing Romance On The Run
Tony Gilroy's tumultuous history with the Jason Bourne franchise is, as he calls it, "well-documented." But after penning or co-scripting the first three Matt Damon-starring spy pics in the series — navigating a maelstrom of widely reported behind the scenes beefs, including Damon's snipe last year at Gilroy's Bourne Ultimatum script — the writer-director was lured back to this weekend's The Bourne Legacy by the opportunity to create a new secret agent (Jeremy Renner) to build insidious political conspiracies and impossible action sequences and existential questions around. "In a strange way," he tells Movieline, "I felt more of a personal connection with this character than I ever felt with Jason Bourne."
Prior to Gilroy coming aboard The Bourne Legacy, which introduces Renner's highly-skilled agent Aaron Cross as Jason Bourne's gentler, funnier, and more genetically-modified contemporary (Chems! He needs chems!), Universal and author Robert Ludlum's estate were in a bind to find a new, fresh way to continue the lucrative spy franchise. Gilroy, who had left the series behind to helm his own Michael Clayton and Duplicity — and up to that point, he admits, had never even seen the Paul Greengrass-directed The Bourne Ultimatum — took a polite coffee meeting, which turned into a few weeks' worth of scripting help, which in turn rekindled his interest in the property so much so he signed on to direct.
The result is a Bourne "sidequel" that runs parallel to the events of Ultimatum but follows new hero Renner as he and Rachel Weisz's comely, brainy scientist Dr. Marta Shearing evade a government burn-down of their top secret Outcome program. The action takes the pair from the labs to the woods of Maryland to the streets of Manila, through an assortment of set pieces including one physics-defying sequence inspired, Gilroy reveals, by Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men.
Gilroy rang Movieline to discuss those eye-catching stunts and more, including why he returned to Bourne after all that drama, how Renner and Weisz's crackling chemistry dictated on-set rewrites of Aaron and Marta's "will they/won't they?" romantic relationship, and what, if any, master plan is in place to reunite both Damon and Renner as a superspy duo in future Bourne installments.
There’s an unusual history between you and this franchise; you’re not just any director who’s been hired, and you’re not just any screenwriter tackling the next sequel in this series.
You know, it came about in such a random, incremental way. I turned in the script for Bourne Ultimatum about three weeks before I started pre-production on Michael Clayton and then I couldn’t have been more outside [the process]. They greenlit the script and they started and everyone was happy, then I went to do Clayton and was completely outside, for years. I really didn’t have any involvement whatsoever. I mean, I’d hear anecdotally from people but my main source of information would be whatever was in the press. So the movie came out and it was like, "What are they going to do next?" And a lot of really switched-on people spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do — I wasn’t part of any of that — and then they all fell apart. They ran out of road. That’s a tough problem. I’m not sure I would have been able to solve that exact problem, of where you go with Jason Bourne. And then they all left!
So then you came in with the idea for Aaron Cross?
More time went by and I took a very casual meeting with the guys from the estate who were in New York — really, just a cup of coffee, a 20-minute meeting, and they said, “We don’t know what to do! We don’t have Matt, and we don’t have Jason Bourne anymore — somebody has to figure out a way to go forward.” I said, “I haven’t seen the third movie but I’ll go and look at it, and if I can think of a way to help you out, I will.” A couple weeks later I called them back with just the very first idea for [Bourne Legacy]: What if there was this larger conspiracy — what if there was another program? What if there was someone, a mastermind, sitting behind all of this?
If you’d asked me then I’d have said the last thing I’ll ever be doing was this. Then the idea got a little sexier — Oh my god, you can have Ultimatum playing in the background, you can do all these really cool things that no one’s ever done before! I really came on for a couple of weeks; it was like a problem-solving job, it wasn’t even a writing job. And then I got the character and I got sucked in. So there was no master plan.
What was your feeling in returning to helm Bourne Legacy given your past relationships with these movies?
Feelings-wise, at this point it’s been 13 years. It’s been very good to me in some ways, and it’s been very frustrating in other ways which are well documented. It’s been very successful and certainly helped me get Clayton made. So I’m very happy that I did it all those years ago.
Is it gratifying to step into the director’s chair after being a writer for so long on this franchise?
The places to be anxious are in terms of the quality of the other films and being beholden to the DNA of the other films in key areas, the really fundamental things that make it what it is. But I never really felt like, wow, this is finally mine! It was interesting to me; I like the character, the story came together, and I thought, wow — I’m really into this. This could be something that would be worth two years of your life, that’s what you’re looking at. You’d never base a decision like that on anything petty or competitive. It’s too big a decision.
So the solution to the Bourne series’ problem was creating Aaron Cross. I liked Jason Bourne as a character, but as played by Jeremy Renner, Aaron Cross is pretty much the perfect spy boyfriend you’d want to be on the run with. How did you approach carving this guy out, giving him a different purpose in life, with a personality that’s not only a stark contrast to Bourne but from the other agents we’ve encountered in this world?
[Laughs] You know, part of getting here in the script is like math, problem-solving, craftsmanship. And then part of it is wherever dumb luck and inspiration meet up. As excited as everybody else got about it, I was like, this is really empty — you’ve got to have a character here that’s huge. I don’t think we realized in the beginning — we certainly didn’t realize it when we did the first one — what a great problem it was for an assassin to have an identity problem and a morality problem. You could get three movies out of it!
But the idea for [Aaron Cross] just sort of dropped one day as I was sketching it. I’ve never worked on a character like this before, I’ve never quite seen this problem and certainly have never seen this problem expressed in an action or adventure movie before. In a strange way I felt more of a personal connection with this character than I ever felt with Jason Bourne — the idea of being alive and losing your awareness, the idea of turning down the dimmer switch on your appreciation of life, even, is such a terrifying thing and something that we all worry about. [Laughs] I was really happy it was sitting in front of me on a piece of paper!
You chose to wrap up Bourne Legacy’s conclusion by not falling prey to the easy romantic moments one might expect from a guy-and-girl on the lam movie like this. Was there a specific intention behind that Aaron-Marta relationship?
We had a really big advantage, I think, in that when we started and even while we were shooting — well, we shot Norton’s stuff first, then Rachel came in and did the lab stuff, and then Jeremy came in and they started working together — at the end of our shoot in New York we still didn’t really know how far we would go with [the romance], but we were kind of liberated in that I didn’t feel like a win for us had to necessarily be that. The movie could have been weirdly satisfying if they ended up sort of as brother and sister or co-conspirators. If they’d just been two people that survived it would have been interesting, or if it had ended up with just a doctor-patient relationship — a really strange one. I’ve been on movies where you start off, these two people have to be in love at the end of the movie, or have to be in love in the movie and fall apart and then get back together, and you have to have that. But we didn’t have to have that, so we didn’t have to force it.
For instance, the motel scene, where that chemistry really builds.
We shot that motel room scene — in point of fact, we did it once and didn’t like it, and went back and did it again a week later. In the rewrite of that, I really had to cop to the idea that this was really happening and really wrote into it, and then we shot it and they were just so kinda hot with each other, in a scene that’s not like that at all. So the rest of the way in we put up the spinnaker and went for it. But it was nice to know that we didn’t have to do that.
Well, all that said, I’d still like to thank you for all the male topless scenes. All these half-naked Jeremy Renner shots and not a single gratuitous look at Rachel Weisz.
[Laughs] You're welcome!
You shot a number of ambitious action sequences — the motorcycle chase in the Philippines among them — but there’s one particular impossible shot of Jeremy as Aaron free-climbing up the side of Marta’s house, up the walls, and into the second-story window. How did you conceive of that coming together?
We had the idea for it and we had the house — there was a real house that we had found, and we went there.
You wrote action to fit your locations, right?
Exactly. I can’t really do them unless they’re really specific. If we were to say we’re in the Four Seasons hotel right now and we need to do an action sequence, I’d say okay, let’s walk around and figure out what works, and what’s fun, whatever. We saw this house and it wasn’t just all the opportunities inside – we looked at the outside and it was really cool.
And filming it in a faux unbroken shot enhances the movie illusion that Aaron is an enhanced human being.
I’m a huge fan of Children of Men — I think it’s the greatest action movie in the last many years. And I love how seamless it is, they never make you think about what’s going on. So there’s a little bit of trickery but a lot of reality; you can’t do them unless you really rehearse them. And really, our climbing up the house is a small fractional piece of what they’re doing in Children of Men.
I watched it thinking I would love to believe that Jeremy Renner really just crawled up that house.
A lot of it really happened! That’s really Jeremy going up the side of that house. I mean, a camera can’t fit through that window and follow him through the window, that’s not physically possible.
Was that easier or tougher than filming Jeremy jump straight down perfectly into that skinny alley in the Philippines?
Oh that, you do. That’s a real place, a real thing. So that’s him and that’s a real practical thing that we built. It’s actually an easy thing to do — dropping down is easier than going up.
There’s been a lot of talk about bringing Matt Damon back to join with Renner in future Bourne installments — has there been any concrete movement in that direction so far?
That’s beyond hypothetical. There’s nothing concrete at all, and anytime anybody says anything in print it turns into a whole… no, really, really nothing. Zero conversations.
Do you think the chances are good that that’ll actually ever happen?
I have no insight into that at all. We’ll be running around gabbing away and doing all this stuff and the audience will tell us what should happen, I should think. But the idea that we have some sort of organized thing here is such an amusing idea. [Laughs] There’s no master plan.
The Bourne Legacy is in theaters today.