From the aesthetic to its own protagonist, Tony Gilroy did some work to distance The Bourne Legacy from the previous, Jason Bourne-led trilogy. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) isn’t Bourne, and The Bourne Legacy isn’t a carbon copy of the voices Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass helped shaped this series with. His mythology-expanding feature focuses on one man with one simple goal – which doesn’t involve his identity, finding forgiveness, or getting revenge for his girlfriend’s death.
As Tony Gilroy told us at the start of the summer, the Michael Clayton director didn’t want to “lose the balls.” With an edgy anti-hero in the lead – one who’s capable of using either a wolf or a fire extinguisher to save his own skin – Gilroy kept the balls of this series intact while also exploring new thematic corners of the Bourne universe. If Gilroy is correct, we’ll soon see more episodic and expansive mega-blockbusters told in the vein of The Bourne Legacy, and it’s a prediction the Academy Award nominee seemed excited by.
Aaron’s mission is much simpler than Bourne’s, in how there isn’t a great deal of drama for him. Right from the beginning, did you just see it as best to keep Aaron and his story simple?
That’s what you want, isn’t it? You want somebody that needs something really bad, that’s interesting and clean. A movie gets a lot easier to write when you have that, and it’s really hard to get. All the other stuff is sexy and fun and everyone gets all excited, like, “Oh, we can make a large conspiracy, have Bourne Ultimatum play in the background!” In the back of your head you’re thinking, “Well, we don’t have a guy, until there’s someone who needs something desperately and is cool.” That’s when my interest went from mercenary to completely plugged in, once the character came through.
Was there any initial trepidation of taking the series in a new direction, and doing so as a director?
You know, by the time I threw my hat in the ring, I went, incrementally, from a couple of conversations to maybe working on it for a week or two, to help them out, and then coming back to them saying, “Wow, this has gotten hot, and really fast. I have a 30 page treatment here, which is pretty much the full story with a mythology laid out there. If you want me to write it, I have a feeling I’ll want to direct it.” By the time I wrote the script, I already knew the movie. I knew what it was going to be, and I was into it. I knew there’d be many months of taking shit when people didn’t know what we were going to do, you know? By that time, I knew what was I going to do. The anxiety was the normal anxiety of directing again, directing a movie of this scale, realizing what it’s going to do to your life, and what you’re going to have to go through; it’s more anxiety about the process. Once I knew what the story was I knew the people who were the most freaked out would be into what we were doing if they knew what it was.
With the scale being bigger than Michael Clayton and Duplicity, did it make for a much more complicated process than it usually is for you?
Oh, yeah. I think there were more shooting days on this film than the other two films combined. It’s sort of like you’re running the 440 and then, all the sudden, you’re doing a marathon. It’s the length of it, the expanse of it, the management side of it, the amount of people who work on a film, and the amount of delegating you’re going to have to do for your department heads. If you look at it all at once you’re going to panic, so you just got to look at it overall, like, “Is this how I want my life to be?” If you decide you want to bite down on it, you go step-by-step, keep it nice and small and gradually get there. You know, you have more money. Michael Clayton wouldn’t pay for the catering budget on this.
[Laughs] You once said how while writing you could only focus on one thing at a time to truly do your best. How do you keep that same kind of focus when you’re dealing with so many variables on a film like this?
Yeah, but it’s what’s in front of you that day, what’s coming up next week, and what’s the rest of your week look like. Believe me, man, if you’re an obsessive person, that is a great way to party, because everything falls away and the rest of life disappears. You’re just, like, “What are we doing today? How do we get this? What’s coming up tomorrow?” You’re never looking at the whole thing at once. You’re always looking at the piece you’re on.
So, is it similar to writing in that way?
In pre-production and in post-production, it’s very similar to writing, because writing is about do-overs. If you don’t like what you wrote, you just wait for the next day and redo it; it’s a world of repair. When you’re shooting, it’s a completely different game, since everything is do or die, and that’s the hardest thing. If you ask the fear of everything director, it’s…you have to leave things behind all the time, where you’re thinking, “Wow, did I get that?” It’s a rare opportunity to do something over again when you’re shooting, and that’s a different game.
Do your films ever notably change in post?
No. Some things probably shift along the way, and that’s the great liberty of being a writer-director: you have the liberty to do that stuff. I’m sure not directing these things to take a fundamental approach. You don’t want to be locked in your script, and that’s not what you want to be doing. Somethings do shift, because you’re looking for ideas and a new energy along the way. I mean, I’m in the editing room and [editor] John [Gilroy] will throw somethings at me I never thought of. Sometimes [there's changes], but probably less than most.
Is it ever made less stressful on set just by looking around and seeing you’re surrounded by talents like Robert Elswit?
Oh, yeah, that’s the game [Laughs]. It’s Robert, Kevin Thompson, Dan Gilroy, James Newton Howard, property people, and the script supervisors. You want to surround yourself with as many filmmakers as possible. I want to be in a cocoon surrounded by filmmakers. You have a long time in prep and you try to put your ideas in everybody’s heads, trying to tell them the movie over and over again. Hopefully every decision you make is consistent, so by the time you’re making decisions that are critical, everyone is pointing the same way. Yeah, you can’t do this without dozens of people really switched on who are good at what they do. This is a very communal process.
The last time we spoke you emphasized how pleased you were to be shooting on film. Was there ever serious thought over going digital?
Yeah, we never really had a serious digital conversation for this film.
Does digital just not interest you?
No, not at all. I think you go with what’s right. There’s a lot of projects that [digital] would be the appropriate way to go. I’m not a fundamentalist about that in anyway. It’s also a consistency thing, trying to marrying in what happened before. I mean, we shot the previous two films anamorphically, and I think we talked for about fifteen minutes trying to do it that way. Super-35 was the smart thing to do with all the cameras we were moving and the movie we were doing, since the previous films were shot that way. As many departures as we were making aesthetically, we wanted to make some things consistent. I still think, at this point, film is the best image capturer and storage system and exists.
Logistically would it have been difficult moving around all those anamorphic cameras?
It’s interesting, there’s something about the limitations of it. It does get difficult if you’re going to be moving around a lot. You can’t make it breathe the same way, and, quite honestly, it’s very unforgiving. We were running a lot more cameras than usual; we were, almost all the time, shooting with two cameras, and, with the motorcycles, we’d be shooting with six or seven cameras sometimes. We were moving quickly, so you want to be able to have the headroom and reframe, if you can. You don’t want to be locked in.
For that big motorcycle chase to the fight scenes, there’s always this trick you use in the series: giving the smallest amount of weapons to your hero, like, only two shotgun shells or a fire extinguisher. Do you always try to approach action that way, minimalistically?
Yeah. What you don’t have to do everyday on these films is reinvent what you’re pulling for. You’re pulling for authenticity, so you start there with every decision, from casting, set design, or how you’re going to shoot it. All of our action is very much character-driven. We’re much more interesting in the character’s point-of-view, so you start from the granular level all the time. Limitations is a lot of what this is about: What’s wrong? What doesn’t work? What fails?
Since you don’t have to reinvent, did you ever look at other movies as templates?
Yeah, I watch movies in a completely different way. You know, it’s like anything: if you’re going to buy a car, you look at other cars. Whatever it is — a person or anything — you get interested and look at things in a different way. When you go into a movie like this, you start watching movies in a different way, for sure.
Are there any movies in particular that maybe you drew from for Bourne?
Ah, man, I mean we looked at a lot. We were very interesting in fights and motorcycles. For the motorcycle stuff, we went back and really did a complete look back at all the great motorcycle sequences, which there aren’t many of, since they’re so hard to do; it’s a smaller list than you’d think. The motorcycle chase which is probably the most exciting is Terminator 2. It’s a completely different aesthetic and everything else, but it’s really cool. I’m not good at the list question and I’ll usually think of this answer two hours later.
[Laughs] That’s no problem. When you wrote the script, did you only see Aaron’s story as one film or a part of something bigger?
Bigger in that it ties into…
Into more of Aaron’s story or future installments.
We knew we had to make a movie people could watch without knowing anything about the other films, right? You can’t make that, so you have to road test that and make sure you stay true to that. We probably push the edges of that with one scene in particular, which may be confusing, if you don’t know everything. We really wanted to make sure you could see this as standalone movie. But, you know, it’s an interesting possibility in screenwriting and storytelling that in these mega-movies…some may perceive this negatively, but the idea that you can treat these movies episodically and have a phone call from the other to our movie is great. It’s not that we’re geniuses or anything; it’s sort of an obvious thing. I think you’re going to see a lot more innovation and ideas come out of trying to tell stories episodically as we inevitably move into this franchise-dominate movie business. It’s going to be what’s there, right? A part of it’s fun and exciting. If that’s what you mean by larger, then, yeah.
You have to have enough there to keep you excited for two years. I never didn’t get excited. I’m completely ready to be done. I got tired, but I never got not excited about what we were doing, and that’s a pretty tall order. It’s what you’re shooting for and want, but it doesn’t always workout that way. You want to be interested in what you’re doing.
The Bourne Legacy opens in theaters August 10th.