Many intrigues of Jason Bourne

Many intrigues of Jason Bourne

Hollywood diaries

Many intrigues of Jason Bourne

Paul Greengrass couldn’t have been clearer. He was done with Jason Bourne. And that meant his loyal star, Matt Damon, wouldn’t be returning as the covert operative for the CIA who unravelled agency conspiracies while he recovered his memory.

As late as 2013, Greengrass, director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, insisted he had no desire to return to the Universal Pictures franchise inspired by the Robert Ludlum novels. “I certainly didn’t expect to ever come back and make another one,” Greengrass said.

Yet on July 29, Jason Bourne will return to theatres after a nine-year sabbatical, played by Damon in a movie directed by Greengrass.

The road to yes involved a fragmented political landscape, an insistent fan base and gently prodding studio executives. But the simply titled Jason Bourne emerges in a moviegoing environment different from the one the superspy found himself in 2007. The creative team and studio behind Jason Bourne hope their film performs more like this year’s few outliers, Captain America: Civil War and Finding Dory. But they all recognise that the calculus behind successful sequels is tricky.

“It’s this weird thing where you can’t give them exactly the same thing, or they’ll be resentful,” Damon said. “But you have to give them enough of something they recognise that they feel like they’re getting what they paid for.”

Given the Bourne franchise’s rocky beginnings, its ultimate success came as a bit of a shock — even to its star. “The first movie looked like a turkey within the business,” Damon said of The Bourne Identity.

That film was delayed and over budget, and the final cut had been wrested away from its director, Doug Liman. But something odd happened in the summer of 2002. The movie’s mix of visceral, kinetic action and contemporary political concerns felt fresh to audiences. Jason Bourne was a new kind of action hero. He didn’t punctuate his pummeling of foes with well-aimed quips. And he wasn’t kitted out with the latest technological marvels or a souped-up Aston Martin; he made do with found objects or whatever car he could steal.

Though The Bourne Identity performed only decently on its opening weekend, word-of-mouth buoyed the movie, and it ended up making more than $120 million domestically.

The studio quickly set out to make more. Greengrass, coming off Bloody Sunday, his dramatisation of a massacre by British troops of Irish protesters in 1972, was recruited for the 2004 Bourne Supremacy. Critical acclaim joined box-office success for Supremacy and, in 2007, The Bourne Ultimatum, which won Oscars for film editing, sound mixing and sound editing.

But Greengrass was burned out on Bourne. The films were not only gruelling to make, but the original trilogy also felt of a piece, one unfolding story when watched in succession. A new film would require a new motivating set of circumstances.

The studio gave Greengrass time, and he gave it a shot. But when it became clear that he couldn’t find an idea that excited him, Universal Pictures — facing a contractual deadline with the Robert Ludlum estate to produce another film — went to Plan B. Not keen on recasting the role, the studio then released an offering from the screenwriter of the first three films, Tony Gilroy, who conjured up another black ops agent, Aaron Cross (played by Jeremy Renner) for The Bourne Legacy.

But Donna Langley, the chairwoman of Universal Pictures, never gave up hope. “We were always playing the long game with the Bourne franchise,” said Langley, adding, “Even though Matt and Paul had been definitive about not wanting to come back, we weren’t really willing to submit to that,” she added with a laugh.

In late 2013, Langley invited Damon to lunch with her new boss, Jeff Shell, a longtime television executive whom Comcast had just put in charge of Universal’s filmed entertainment business. The get-together had but one purpose: to gently nudge a Bourne movie starring Damon back on track.

Damon was amenable to at least considering a return.
“I thought I was completely at peace with the three movies, and I was so happy with how good they were and what the whole franchise had done for my career and my life,” Damon said. “But when I saw their production offices, it hurt me in a way that surprised me.”

“At a certain point, I said to Paul, ‘People really want to see this movie, and that’s not something to turn our noses up at,’” Damon said. “Having made movies that didn’t find an audience, I didn’t want to thumb our nose at this opportunity.”