Mike Fleming

The Bourne Identity is the rare tent pole trilogy. It generated three films that set the high bar for the espionage genre, despite rampant creative clashes that go back to the first film, which was started by Doug Liman (who didn’t return). Key to the construction of Bourne’s complex mythology all along has been Tony Gilroy, who stripped away most of Robert Ludlum dense original book and boiled it down to an amnesiac assassin’s challenge to rediscover his identity and humanity. While that narrative arc propelled the film through three installments, Gilroy along the way stopped talking to director Paul Greengrass. And while Gilroy has screen credit on all three Bourne films, Matt Damon very uncharacteristically went out of his way to diss Gilroy’s script for The Bourne Ultimatum. At present, neither Greengrass nor Damon want anything more to do with Bourne.

This week, Gilroy returns as writer/director of the spinoff The Bourne Legacy. Focusing on an illicit CIA Treadstone offshoot that genetically enhances the killing skills of a small group of operatives, Gilroy introduces Jeremy Renner as new protagonist Aaron Cross. That character’s arc is woven into several plot lines from the last movie, something that expands Bourne’s universe to the point where another Bourne film could certainly be possible. In a wide ranging interview, Gilroy talks about that challenge, why the mid-budget thriller game that built his career is facing extinction, why screenwriters are so slighted, and how all Hollywood processes the Aurora, Colorado massacre, wondering if movies should be less violent.

DEADLINE: The Bourne Ultimatum ended with Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass bowing out, and then Damon disparaged your Bourne Ultimatum script. And here you’ve come back with a spinoff film that expands the universe and makes a Jason Bourne return more plausible. Given all the past acrimony, what drew you back?

GILROY: I didn’t feel that acrimony. I turned in a draft of Ultimatum and it got green lit, and then I went off and directed Michael Clayton. I was really out of it. But the last thing I ever thought I would do would come back and write one, much less ever direct it. It was just so not on my radar at all. When all that other stuff happened, I read about it, probably through you. Long after, the guys from the Ludlum estate came to New York and wanted to have a cup of coffee. My brother was working for them at the time; I didn’t want to be rude. It was pretty much a courtesy meeting. I went in and they expressed all their frustrations with how to go forward. It was like, what do they do? Where could they go? You can imagine all the wacky ideas that everybody had been banging around.

DEADLINE: Ultimatum ended with Jason Bourne learning his identity and exposing his tormenters. And then Greengrass said no more, and Damon also said goodbye. What did you tell the producers?

GILROY: My advice was you could never replace Matt. These films sold integrity and authenticity for 12 years, and that was Matt. I left that meeting after 15 to 20 minutes, said I hadn’t seen the third movie but would watch and if I thought of anything, I’d get back in touch. I watched it, I spoke with my brother, and I said they’re really jammed and the only way they could get out of it is if there was a larger conspiracy. He said, tell them that, and I did. I came on in the beginning in one of weekly screenwriter things, where they pay you for a couple of weeks to come dig some holes in the ground. When you start digging, sometimes there’s nothing there. And sometimes, you get hot.

DEADLINE: How does that work, cracking the code?

GILROY: Mostly, you bounce around for a year in a room looking for something and then all of a sudden you find one little thing that starts a fire, and then it goes really quick. Here, I had that little idea, and everybody got excited simply because it was some oxygen. But I still felt the big hang up was finding a character who has an issue as fundamental and important and playable and interesting as what we had with Bourne. I thought that was where this would fall down. It could be sexy and cool and kind of fun but it’s not going to have Bourne. Should there be multiple people? I was playing with a lot of wacky ideas. And then, one day, it just drops on your desk. You just go, wow, here’s the guy that’s gonna be in this program, here’s why he would be in jeopardy. And where did he come from and…I believe there are like three days every year that pay for the whole year and that was one of those days.

DEADLINE: So basically you bang your head against the wall and then one day it breaks through.

GILROY: Yeah. The drag is, you gotta have your ass in the fucking room, and stay there until it happens. It was like, holy shit, here’s the guy, I got the guy! I remember calling my brother Danny up and going, is this as good as I think it is? And that’s really when the whole thing really fell into place. Then I took a meeting with them, where they were expecting me to present them with a progress report.

DEADLINE: Sounds like you had way more than that.

GILROY: I flew out to Universal and walk in with this 30-page document and said, here’s the whole movie, here’s the mythology behind it, here’s the guy, here’s how it ties in and here’s why you should do everything you can to preserve what happened in the past and keep the lines of communication open with Jason Bourne. And I also said if we were going to make a writing deal, it seemed like we might as well make a directing deal. The character got me really interested in a way that I hadn’t anticipated.

DEADLINE: Was it an easy leap for you at that point to not only write it but direct by that point?

GILROY: I’d taken two years off. I sat in a room trying to come up with something compelling, for the better part of a year. I wasn’t having trouble finding work, but I was just having trouble finding stuff that was interesting to me that would be interesting to the audience.

DEADLINE: It also put you in a bigger sandbox as a film director. Your wheelhouse as writer and director has been smart mid budget fare.

GILROY: These movies get so big and if you really want to play now, this is where you play. The movie business has fundamentally changed, as anybody who’s got their eyes open knows, and it’s never changing back. I don’t even know if it should. And in this new movie environment, if you want to play with a larger audience, you have to find something that interests you that interests them. And to me at that point, both of those boxes had been checked off.

DEADLINE: Is the prognosis really that dire for the mid-budget thriller?

GILROY: I don’t know if those other movies exist anymore. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I finished Michael Clayton and in my fantasy, my life would be, I’ll write for dough and I’ll try to make Crimes And Misdemeanors every year-and-a-half or two years. Well, that model just doesn’t work. That disappeared by the time I woke up, you know, from Duplicity. It’s over. There will be exceptions. I don’t want to be Chicken Little or anything, I think stuff like that will exist and I don’t think that’s any big secret to anyone that it’s all gone and it’s gone to some place really great – it’s gone to cable television. As upsetting as it is to watch the movie part of it disappear, it’s pretty exciting you realize that television is better than anything’s ever been in the history of entertainment probably.

DEADLINE: You finally watched Bourne Ultimatum. What did you think of it?

GILROY: There were some things about it that were really exciting, and there were things that weren’t my cup of tea. It was kind of what I expected. I could see why it had been so hugely successful. Probably the less I say about it, the better. I understand why it was the huge success it was and I have a huge admiration for the filmmakers and the energy that was in it. I really do.

DEADLINE: This is a real step up for Jeremy Renner, who got the job after a long casting search. Why did he fit your vision of the Aaron Cross character?

GILROY: We’d gone through our second series of screen tests by the time his name popped up. He hadn’t been available, until The Avengers got its schedule together. Some puzzle piece dropped in place and all of a sudden he was available and he became the frontrunner the moment he came on the list. You’ve seen how complicated the part is, it’s a really big meal. We needed an amazing actor, clearly, but it was more than that. We were trying to have the audience re-identify. And Matt Damon as beloved as he is, he’s highly underrated as a film actor. I think The Informant! is one of the great ignored performances of the last few years, just amazing. So that’s the bar right? We had to have a completely world-class, undeniable, genuine actor. Then we needed an athlete. And it was really great that he wasn’t completely identified in the audiences’ mind. We didn’t have to rebrand somebody, or turn a ship around, or rehab somebody’s reputation or use somebody completely cold out of nowhere. He had it all, and he liked the script and wanted to do it.

DEADLINE: While you were putting all this together, the Ludlum estate set up a big Treadstone TV project and then killed it. I’d heard it was because you wouldn’t do the movie, otherwise. Would have been a deal breaker for you?

GILROY: Yes.

DEADLINE: There’s an extended chase scene that falls right in with signature Bourne action sequences. How long is that scene?

GILROY: Well, it depends on when you decide it starts. If you start it at the Bonnie And Clyde moment where she yells for him to run, it’s probably 16 minutes long. It’s got a bunch of chapters to it. They’re on foot; they’re on the roofs; they’re in the courtyard, and then there is the bike chase. The whole thing is about 15, 16 minutes.

DEADLINE: You broke new ground as a filmmaker.

GILROY: Oh my god, yeah. In every way, all the way through the whole show. Doing one of these really big movies, just the length of the time of the schedule is a lesson. Physically, pacing yourself? I looked at the crawl at the end of the movie, it was six and a half minutes and 600-700 names. The managerial administration of that…there were times I felt more like the governor of Rhode Island, not a director. I am very preparatory. But this is like having kids or something: if you knew what you were into from the start, you’d never do it. But then you fall in love a little bit more each day, and you keep marching forward and every day is fun. As long as you don’t look at the whole thing at once.

DEADLINE: What about this scale of scale film making did you find most exhilarating and unexpected?

GILROY: You walk around Manila, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City. It wasn’t right for us for a bunch of reasons, but we’re shooting photos constantly and we walked around Saigon and saw that chasm, that alley way, that you see in the film. And it’s like, wow. I don’t know where we’re gonna shoot but we gotta have this in the movie, where he slides down, and man, I’ve never seen a fight in a place like this. You accumulate this, just walking the locations. I get paid to make shit up, and I’ve been doing that for 30 years. That’s what this is all about. There is all this talk about craft and mechanics, people like to break everything down, but really, I get paid for my imagination. I like action, when it’s good. I get really frustrated when I don’t know where I am when I am watching a scene, and I get really frustrated when I think somebody’s dropped the ball, wasted a lot of money or missed a great opportunity. But when it works, I mean, I’m a dude. I grew up in a highly testosterone-enriched environment and I like that as much as anything. And this was just a gas.

DEADLINE: Your dad, Frank Gilroy, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, with a long list of feature and TV writing credits. One of your brothers, John, edits your films, the other, Dan, helped you write this one. Were you bred to understand narrative and storytelling?

GILROY: I think we were raised to appreciate it. My father worked from home most of the time. He did every kind of writing, and he’s still writing; having his third e-book published this fall. He walked across the George Washington Bridge the day it opened and he fought in Patton’s Third Army and he published two e-books last year. It’s just remarkable. He worked mostly at home when he wasn’t off in Hollywood, or off making a movie or doing something. So we grew up in the store, I guess, and we learned a lot more than we ever realized. I don’t think any of us growing up anticipated we’d go into this. It wasn’t really something I thought about until I was in my mid-twenties. I was a musician. I don’t know if it’s genetic, but we certainly had a great training in how the life is supposed to be led and the ups and downs. We spent a lot of time, probably more time than I even remember, discussing story and why things work and don’t work.

DEADLINE: Was there a standard in the house for a perfectly structured script?

GILROY: He worked in live TV and then went out and caught the tail end of the Hollywood studio system. If you go back and look at those scripts from the 50s and 60s, they’re so lean, so crisp, so tight. It’s so invigorating and refreshing. I remember reading his script for The Fastest Gun Alive, finding that script in the house when his papers were going to Dartmouth College. The writing was just so lean.

DEADLINE: Speaking of lean, it feels like it keeps getting tougher for screenwriters to make a living, with the Writers Guild just issuing a survey where writers overwhelmingly feel conditions have deteriorated to a point they’ve never seen before. It is now a business of sweepstakes pitching and step deals. What is going on?

GILROY: That’s a long, long fucking conversation. it’s really hard to put in a nutshell all the things that are going on. But I can remember that at one point in time, it wasn’t this groovy job that everybody wanted. There weren’t screenwriting sections in bookstores. There weren’t seminars and screenwriting programs at colleges. There was none of that. The people that went into it really had to fight their way in, in a really different way. I think it’s true for actors and it’s true for writers and probably true for directors. You had the draft, and WWII and the Korean War and a lot of people that came out of that had their lives turned upside down in a really amazing way. The guys that survived and came out and they all of a sudden were dragged out of their neighborhoods. A lot of people had their horizons expanded in ways they hadn’t anticipated. You got a lot of interesting actors out of that you never would have seen, and interesting writers too. A lot of journalists became writers. It’s a much better career path when you have people who really know about something. Learning how to write a screenplay is a lot easier than having something to talk about. Somebody who worked as a crime reporter for two years in Raleigh-Durham is gonna have a lot more interesting things to talk about that some 22-year-old kid who grew up in Brentwood, who wants to be a writer because he likes the way the life looks. That’s just one part of it, and the other side is a much bigger issue about the war on talent and the scale of movies. And Mike, that’s a four day conversation.

DEADLINE: Well, let me see if I can press you on one aspect. It seems to me that when a writer has to please a studio executive who’ll okay him to be paid for an extra step, that compromises any level of authorship that a writer is being paid to provide. This can’t be good for the quality of movies.

GILROY: I don’t want to get myself in trouble here, but there have been a couple of movies in the last 20, 30 years that were written by committee, that were absolute disasters all along the way, and they turned out really good in every way. And I think those movies became signposts for people to think that system works. In general, the movies that I like have a singular voice. You get some really strong point of view all the way through. The more concentrated, consolidated and ballsy that it is, those are our best films. And there are anomalies along the way, but in general, that’s what works and the system does not nurture that. The system now doesn’t respond to it, it doesn’t reward it, and is afraid of it.

DEADLINE: A young writer might get very depressed reading that, and absorbing the WGA survey. Besides stepping up to direct their own scripts as you now do, is there anything a writer can do to take back that authorship?

GILROY: Yeah. Don’t cash the check. Don’t raise your nut to the point where you have to take work you don’t want to take. Don’t trap yourself. Everyone talks about creative rights, but I never believed the Writers Guild should fight for creative rights. I was always against the whole creative rights thing and that we should strictly be about the economics. It’s no secret what a militant I am about that. But creative rights are something that you wake up with every morning. And when you endorse a check, you’re making a contract with yourself as much as anyone else. The idea is still king. Spend 90% of your time working on the idea. Have something so compelling and so in the pocket and so needed, that you can maintain control. If enough people want it, and if you’ve got the balls to hang on to it, and you haven’t mortgaged your life past the point of sanity, then you can make tough decisions. It’s really hard to do. You’ve got a family to support. It’s easier for me to say because I’m in a sweet spot right now. But this has been a navigating principle for me for years.

DEADLINE: You didn’t say much when Matt Damon disparaged your Bourne Ultimatum script draft in GQ. When he retracted his comments, he said, this is between me and Tony and either we work it out or we don’t. Has there been any effort between you to hash things out?

GILROY: I have not spoken to him in years. So no.

DEADLINE: Should there be another Bourne film, and would you be involved?

GILROY: I have absolutely no commitment at this point whatsoever to anything. We have been on the junket for two weeks and everywhere you go, everyone thinks you’re full of shit. But there’s no plan, there has been no real kind of conversation ever about where this is going forward. Zero. I mean, obviously we left it in a place where…we didn’t want to be cheesy and be like those movies where they’re asking you to buy another ticket on the way out the door. But we wanted to leave ourselves in a position where the soil was replenished and the mythology was hopefully a lot more interesting. We did a little housekeeping along the way to tidy up and preserve what had come in the past. Beyond bar talk, there is no concrete plan whatsoever about going forward that I know about.

DEADLINE: You certainly left a bread crumb trail to continue the adventures of Aaron Cross.

GILROY: Man I could sit down and give you 30 ways to go forward, but I don’t know what the right way is. You could go backwards. You could go forward. The audience needs to speak at this point. They will tell you. It’s not hard to imagine the appetite that will be there if it’s a hit.

DEADLINE: Despite the great reviews and the huge grosses, the Bourne films have always been filled with acrimony from Doug Liman’s acrimonous exit, to your not talking with Greengrass and then the Damon stuff. It feels like there hasn’t been an easy moment, and yet these movies are all smart, layered and satisfying. And you’ve given the whole thing a new shot of life with this spinoff film. How do you explain so much success amid so much creative turmoil?

GILROY: I think it comes down to Matt Damon, front and center. Onscreen, there has been a level of integrity you could really lean into. And no matter what else happened, none of the creative people ever really did it for the money. Matt laid the template for that. No one was going to do one if it wasn’t right, and everybody was willing to go do something else unless it was right. That’s why this has been very successful, for everyone involved. There is the studio motivation. There has been four owners of Universal in the last 13 years that I have worked on this, and those studio machines want what they want. But within those parameters, I don’t think anyone just did it for the dough. And because of that, people have been willing to wait. That’s probably why Matt and Paul walked away. I’m not sure if I had worked on that problem – I never did – that I could have figured out how to bring back Jason Bourne. A lot of smart people tried. It was wrapped up pretty neatly and that was the math problem. How do we continue directly with Jason Bourne directly after Ultimatum, without looking like it’s a cash grab? I never worked on that problem. It doesn’t look like a very promising problem, and I think the fact that they actually walked away instead of doing something cheesy is one of the main reasons this has a chance to continue.

DEADLINE: You’re saying the integrity that Bourne had onscreen, the making of those films has been done in the same spirit?

GILROY: Yeah, but I don’t want to sound like an idiot here. People made a lot of money, and the series has been very successful for all of us. But everybody involved knew they could do something else if they wanted to. And again, the only key person in the whole thing, all the way down the line, has been Matt.

DEADLINE: One final question. There has been soul searching from some filmmakers and studio executives about violence in films after the Aurora, CO massacre. I’m sure every filmmaker has thought about it. Do you come away wondering if too many movies are too gratuitously violent?

GILROY: Another big meta-question. I thought Nolan’s statement was great but if he had passed it around, I would have loved to have signed that. It was so spot on. I don’t know the answer to the larger cultural question. There was a period of time when there were movies like Hostel and some others, where I don’t know how you place those in a moral narrative continuum that I would want to be part of.

But you can only do what you do, yourself. There’s nothing overly sensational or glamorizing or … you know, that’s the wrong answer. Mike, l don’t really know. We spasm through these cycles of self-reflection and hopefully there’s a residue that comes from each one of these things that has some sort of effect. I’m not a cultural theologian the way I should be, I suppose. I don’t know the real answer to that. You make your own personal decisions every day about what to do and what lines you wouldn’t cross. I do think Chris Nolan’s, what he wrote, that was a really beautiful and legit statement.

Get Deadline news and alerts sent to your inbox.