When last we heard from Jason Bourne, he had exposed the CIA’s top secret Treadstone program, which had given him special skills and abilities as a spy. The third film in the hugely successful espionage series (which has grossed almost $1 billion at the worldwide box office), The Bourne Ultimatum, seemingly wrapped up the story. Treadstone’s cover had been blown and after three movies, Jason Bourne had finally uncovered the details about his identity. It is understandable then that finding a way to continue the franchise proved very difficult.
Having written the three previous Bourne films, Tony Gilroy had entertained several ideas for how to push the franchise forward, but it wasn’t until the suggestion for a deeper conspiracy surfaced that the writer’s interest was piqued. The idea was for the Treadstone program to be just one of several clandestine intelligence programs, all of which become threatened as Jason Bourne’s actions become public. When recounting the resurrection of the project, Gilroy says it wasn’t until the character of Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) came into focus that he truly got on board. “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,” says Gilroy. ”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.”
With a fresh way to look at the story in place, that’s also the time when Gilroy decided to not only write the script with his brother Dan, but to step into the director’s chair for the first time on a Bourne movie. His first order of business was trying to find a way to tie Ultimatum and Legacy together. The answer came when they decided to make the events of the two movies happening simultaneously. “You could have Ultimatum play in the background of the first 12-15 minutes of the movie,” says Gilroy. ”That could be a phone call from the other movie to our movie.”
That phone call is made to Edward Norton, who is introduced as retired Colonel Eric Byer, the director of a black-line agency, NRAG (National Research Assay Group). It is quickly revealed that Byer is the man who has built these programs, Treadstone and Outcome, which is at the center of The Bourne Legacy. With Bourne and Treadstone now compromised, Byer realizes he must sacrifice Outcome, and begins eliminating everyone involved, from the agents in the field to the scientists who helped create it. Byers’ efforts to clean up the mess put agent Aaron Cross and scientist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), whose company is responsible for monitoring the progress of Outcome agents, directly in the crosshairs as they are the two remaining links to Outcome that haven’t been silenced.
Actor Jeremy Renner is no stranger to action movies having received an Oscar® nomination for his performance in The Hurt Locker, and following that up with roles in The Town – another Oscar® nomination – Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol, and this summer’s biggest hit, The Avengers. But more than living up to the physical expectations of the role, Renner concerned himself first and foremost with the fans of the Bourne franchise. “What Matt Damon did, and what the previous directors have done, was great. For those who love the franchise, I’m not replacing Matt, nor would I want to,” says Renner. ”It would never have been interesting if I was taking over and playing the same character. Matt is always the face of Jason Bourne and always should be. I liked this script because it was a very interesting way of continuing the story while honoring what came before.”
The script also called for a lot of action for the character of Dr. Shearing, which forced Weisz into some very high stress situations. ”What I really like about the tone of the Bourne films is that it is really realistic. 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,” says Weisz. ”She is really scared and really terrified yet she gets to kick ass a little bit.”
As they are tracked across the globe by Byer and his agency, Cross and Shearing find themselves in Manila, and as action sequences and high speed chases unfold through the crowded streets, Gilroy says the Phillipino city becomes a character itself. ”I have shot all around the world on location as a writer and I will say that this is impossible. What we did is impossible any place else that I have ever been, I can’t imagine doing this any place else,” says the director. ”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.”
One scene in particular, a spectacular motorcycle chase through the bustling Manila streets pushed Renner, an avid motorcyle rider, and his skills to the limit. ”I wanted to do as much as I possibly could because of the responsibility of the authenticity of the three films prior,” says Renner. ”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.” As for Weisz, who found herself on the back of Renner’s motorcycle, “It was terrifying…Jeremy told me that it was the scariest stunt for him because he was responsible for my life, which he was,” Weisz said. ”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 because I was terrified.”
As the action and story come to a climax, every character’s ethics and motivations are called into question. Most importantly Byer’s, who has to decide how far he is willing to go to protect himself and his agency. ”That’s what makes Tony’s approach to this film more interesting to me than trafficking in villains and 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 it,” says Norton. ”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 hanging out there for people to sit with and decide.”
For Renner, the actor is looking forward to the future of the Bourne franchise. ”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.”