Tuesday, 07 August 2012 11:40 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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A decade ago, when we first met amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne floating in a turbulent sea, Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity seemed an unlikely franchise-starter, and Matt Damon an unlikely action star.  In that film and the two that followed, however, Liman, Damon, and Paul Greengrass used Robert Ludlum's globe-trotting novels as a jumping-off point for a redefinition of cinematic espionage.

It's been five years Bourne swam off at the conclusion of The Bourne Ultimatum, but this Friday's sequel, The Bourne Legacy, continues the story, exploring the program the turned him into a world-class killer and the individuals impacted by his adventures.  Carrying on Bourne's legacy is Aaron Cross, played by two-time Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner.  Like Bourne, Cross is a souped-up government assassin forced to go on the run from his former superiors, who are liquidating the illegal program after Bourne's public reveal of Treadstone in the last film.

Tony Gilroy, who contributed to all three previous films in the series as a writer, takes over as director on the new film.  IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick was on hand at the recent The Bourne Legacy Los Angeles press day, where Gilroy and Jeremy Renner were joined by co-writer Dan Gilroy and Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton, who play a scientist on the run with Cross and the film's villain, respectively.  The filmmakers shared their enthusiasm for this continuation of a popular story, discussing the concept, challenges, and ambiguities of The Bourne Legacy.

Given the popularity of the first three films, Universal Pictures was understandably eager to create another installment.  Both Damon and Greengrass, who directed The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, were less inclined to return, having brought Bourne full circle.  Undaunted, the studio and producers sought a way to continue the story while honoring what came before.

"A lot of very smart people tried to figure how to go forward after Ultimatum," Gilroy said. "It was wrapped up so beautifully into such a nice package. I was not a part of that, I’m not sure if I could have figured out anything different to do with that. By the time everybody had left and the party was kind of over, and the second round of what do we do post-Bourne, the first conversation was really like a game. It was really like how could we go forward. Then we thought; you know what you could do? You could say that it is only a small piece of this thing. So that’s a sexy idea, everybody gets involved and likes that. Then we though, 'God, you know, you could have Ultimatum play in the background of the first 12-15 minutes of the movie.' That could be a phone call from the other movie to our movie, and then everybody gets very excited."

Even with that structural notion in place, though, Gilroy wasn't especially hooked, but as the character of Aaron Cross came about, he found himself immersed in the story and looking to direct.  As he said, "All that is very sexy, it’s like a beautiful shell but there is nothing. I didn’t get really interested even in writing a script on it much less directing it until the character dropped in the slot and the character came through. When we suddenly realized that there is a character who has as fundamental an issue, as fundamental a problem, and as much meat on the bone as there was for Jason Bourne but is completely different, that’s when it got interesting and that is when Danny and I started talking to each other nineteen times a day on the phone as apposed to once a day."

Though Renner playing an entirely different character, comparisons between Bourne and Cross are inevitable.  For the actor, however, finding parallels weren't necessary.  "Well, I don’t start of trying to figure out the character by comparing him to another character," he explained. "I look at page one to page 120 and look at all the circumstances with Tony and figure it out from there. But yes, the differences are, which were very exciting to me is that it is a new pallet of colors and a new canvas to paint upon. His circumstance is being willing, and I feel connected to that idea of wanting to belong to something. A sense of purpose as a man on the planet, I think most people do. So that is what I initially felt connected to, a guy that really wanted to belong, whether it is the military, or then signing up for a program that makes you feel like you are doing some good on the planet."

Over the last year, Renner has appeared in two blockbuster action movies, playing Brandt in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and Hawkeye in The Avengers.  The shift from being part of an ensemble to a central action hero with The Bourne Legacy was not a dramatic one, Renner said. "I think the difficulties were, everyday, always the same difficulties. There is really no difference it is just a challenge. I was lucky enough to have Mission and Avengers, same guys I worked with on those came onto Bourne, and so I had a running start with that. If anything, it might have been a little easier even though what was required of me was a lot more. As far as the future, I’m excited that the architects and creators behind this whole thing have cleverly left it wide open for fans like myself wondering what the heck is going to happen next."

Of working on a production this complex, he said, "It’s like running downhill, I suppose. That’s what it felt like, just running downhill. My personal workload, I felt, was minimal compared to the entire process of filmmaking. For me, it was about getting enough sleep and being physically adept enough to be able to perform when I needed to perform. That was it, every day. There was fighting, training, stretching, or whatever I had to do to get through the day. It was like, 'Here’s food. Here’s water. Now, go do this.'"

"The treats were the moments like I had with Edward and Rachel," the actor continued. "Those were the little treats along the way that kept me going through the really physical part of the movie."

Asked about the biggest challenge in playing Cross, Renner replied, "Not getting hurt. Pretty much, I could not get injured. I wanted to do as much as I possibly could because of the responsibility of the authenticity of the three films prior. It would do a great injustice to this film if I could not perform what was required. I like those challenges. I like those physical challenges. Outside of that, it’s a job from page one to 120 and tremendous cast and directors and writing. It’s exciting to go to work."

"I hurt my feelings," he concluded with a laugh. "I got banged up a little bit. If you don’t get banged up, you’re not working hard enough in my mind. But, I never got injured to where it stopped me from doing what I needed to do."

The franchise has a new face, but many actors familiar from the previous films reprise their roles here, including Joan Allen, David Straithairn, Albert Finney, Scott Glenn, and Corey Johnson.  This continuity of characters, Gilroy said, was crucially important. "Yeah, it was essential to have them come back, absolutely essential.  If you’ve seen the film, you know how we use them and…it was absolutely essential to have them come back.  And we even looked to see [but] there was no way to get Julia Stiles back in, it just didn’t work this way – she’s off on the run.  Why they came back: I think everyone understands why they came back.  They came in for a couple days here and there and had some fun, and we couldn’t have done it without it."

Still, there are several indispensable new characters involved, such as Eric Byer, the driving force behind the violent liquidation of "assets" like Cross and, as such, the sequel's principal antagonist.  As played by Edward Norton, Byer isn't simply a stock bad guy with a plot to bring down our hero.  Asked about the character's moral complexity, Norton responded with a reinforcement of Byer's ambiguity, saying, "I think the essence of your question is, 'Is he rationalizing corrupt behavior or does he have a point?' I think I’d rather not answer the question, that’s kind a question that is being purposely posed. That’s what makes Tony’s approach to this film more interesting to me than trafficking in villains in heroes. I think a lot of what we see going on in the world everyday that makes us a little uncomfortable with what’s being done in our name and under our banner has that question embedded within in. Is our security worth the compromise of our values and at what level? That’s the question. I enjoy the idea of those paradoxes and those rationalizations being hanging out there for people to sit with and decide how they feel about this guy. I’m happy your asking the question and I’ll leave it at that."

Rachel Weisz is another new addition.  The actress plays the film's second lead, Dr. Marta Shearing, a scientist instrumental in turning Cross and his cohorts into killing machines.  Dismantling the program to save higher ups means erasing any sign that the program ever existed, however, and Marta is targeted for assassination along with Cross.  Weisz was drawn to the role and the film by the grounded approach that has defined the series. 

"What I really like about the tone of the Bourne films is that it is really realistic," she said. "So I’m not playing an action heroine, but I’m playing a scientist who is a normal person. I’m not physically gifted in any way so I think it is always very realistic. She is really scared and really terrified yet she gets to kick ass a little bit. I’m not a super hero. And what it was like to be on the back of a bike with Jeremy, It was terrifying. Actually Jeremy told me today, because he was very sweet and never told me in Manila, that it was the scariest stunt for him because he was responsible for my life, which he was. He didn’t tell me that in Manila – thank god. I just had to surrender and I had to hold on. But I didn’t have to act so it was just terrifying."

Like its predecessors, The Bourne Legacy takes place across a wide variety of global locations, and that centerpiece action sequence was shot in Manila, the capitol city of the Philippines. Gilroy had nothing but praise for the city, saying, "What we did is impossible any place else that I have ever been. Even just trying to shoot on the streets of New York for two weeks and having people walking around is a nightmare. I can’t imagine doing this any place else. The people in the Philippines are so extraordinarily nice. There is just such an upbeat, positive attitude that the people have while we are disrupting their lives, and camped out in their neighborhoods for a month and closing off their roads and blowing things up. It was very tough, tough places to work, tough city to get around, and some really funky places we went but the people made it work."

Creating the motorcycle chase sequence through Manila involved a tremendously long, arduous process, the director recalled.  "Even before we had the script finished, I sat down with Dan Bradley, who had done the other films and is a second unit director and the stunt coordinator, and much more than all of that, before there was ever a script, and I sat down with him and said, 'Look, here’s what’s coming up and I need you desperately.' And we started conversations right then. And it goes from just the very first preamble conversation of, 'What’s the best motorcycle chase that’s ever been done?' and 'Why doesn’t anybody else do it?' and 'Why are they all limited in some way?' and 'How can we make it better?' and it goes from there to a script to visiting Manila and plotting out the places we’re going to do it, and then it gets down to Dan Bradley and a bunch of people, grown men, sitting around a table with Matchbox cars. 'He’s going to go here and that’s going to go here! And then he’s going to spin out!' It’s literally play. It’s six year-olds playing underneath the Christmas tree all the way to guys with welders and chainsaws in a shop in Manila building the rigs to make it. It’s like what you said before. If you thought about it all at once you’d never do it. It’s like having kids. If you knew what you were into you’d go, Forget it, I can’t handle it.' But you go and all of a sudden you’re pregnant! [laughs] And then the kid is there and you have to feed him and you have to clothe him. It’s one stupid little step after another and then you get to the end and you’re like, 'Wow, what did we do?' And we end up here."

Particularly under the stewardship of Greengrass, the franchise became known for its handheld, shakeycam aesthetic and deliberately assaultive, almost disorienting approach to action.  Gilroy, who previously directed  the less action-oriented Michael Clayton and Duplicity, was mindful of the need for a stylistic continuity, but also to define this film's look. "Robert Elswit shot this film and we did two other films together," he explained. "He’s sort of my other super soul brother. We spent a lot of time looking at the previous three films. We had a lot of conversations about how to hew to what had been there before. There’s a real inside baseball way to how they approached it and shot it. I thought we had a pretty legitimate opportunity because we’re saying it’s a much larger world, we’re blowing open the doors on this and we had a much bigger canvas and we had almost a responsibility, but we had free rein to having a slightly different visual vocabulary for that part of the film. When you get to the action, it really has to have the maximum testosterone and energy that you can. There’s a lot of ways to do that. I like knowing where I am in action sequences. I’m a big fan of that. A lot of attention went into that, how can we keep the energy up and orient people. All the conversations and all the anxiety, by the third day of shooting, it was the residue of that we carried with us through the next 100 days. We never really spent much time looking back. It’s something we thought about."

With the film about to open nationwide and the years-long process of actually making The Bourne Legacy concluding, Gilroy recalled how he first became involved in the sequel, saying, "I never even thought I’d be writing another one.  So, in that sense, no different than any of the other films I directed; I wrote them, they were mine, so I got to direct them the first time sort of working on the script.  It happens so incrementally.  We started playing a game and the game got more interesting and then the character came alive and I’d been looking for what to do next. I was trying to find something in the world of big movies, and I wanted to try before I got too old to try to do a big movie and I’ve been looking for something to do that was interesting enough to spend those two years of my life on, and this started to get really interesting.  All of the sudden, this really looked like something that would be fun to do for two years.  So it wasn’t a burning desire, it wasn’t something that I ever thought would happen.  Quite surprising to me."

The Bourne Legacy hits theaters this Friday, August 10th.

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