Tony Gilroy, the narrative architect behind the Bourne film series, takes the helm in the next chapter of the hugely popular espionage franchise, “The Bourne Legacy.” Building on the foundation of the Bourne universe creased by Robert Ludlum, the writer/director expands the saga with an original story that reveals a larger conspiracy and introduces us to a new hero (Jeremy Renner) whose life-or-death stakes have been triggered by the events of the first three films. Renner joins fellow series newcomers Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach and Oscar Isaac, while franchise veterans Albert Finney, Joan Allen, David Strathairn and Scott Glenn reprise their roles.
At the press day for “The Bourne Legacy,” MoviesOnline sat down with Renner, Weisz, Norton, Tony Gilroy, and co-writer Dan Gilroy to talk about the challenges of creating an original film while expanding on the mythology of the first franchise. They told us what it was like filming on location in the Philippines, choreographing a major motorcycle chase sequence with Renner and Weisz on the busy streets of Manila, and shooting in snow and extreme weather in Canada. Renner also discussed playing a different type of Treadstone agent, how his hand-to-hand combat work on this film compared to “MI4” and “The Avengers,” and why he likes how the writers have left the possibilities open for the next installment of the franchise.
Q: For Jeremy, it seems like one of the big differences between your character and Jason Bourne is your character likes being an agent. How did that difference help you wrap your head around a different Treadstone agent?
Jeremy Renner: Well I don’t start off by figuring out the character by comparing it to another character. I look at page 1 to page 120 and then go over all the circumstances with Tony and figure it out from there. But yes, the difference, which was very exciting to me, is that it’s a new palette of colors and a new canvas to paint upon with these circumstances of being willing. I feel connected to that idea of wanting to belong to something, to have a sense of purpose as a man on the planet. I think most people do and that’s what I initially connected to – a guy that really wanted to belong whether it was in the military or then signing up for a program to feel like you’re doing some sort of good on the planet.
Q: How much more difficult was the hand-to-the hand combat in this film compared to “MI4” and “The Avengers”? Also, is Aaron going to meet Jason and team up with him in the next installment?
Renner: I think the difficulties every day were always the same. Difficult. There’s really no difference. It’s just a challenge, a different set of circumstances. I was lucky enough to have, as you say, “MI4” and “The Avengers.” The same guys I worked with on that came onto “Bourne” 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. And, as far as the future, I’m excited that the architects and the creators behind this whole thing have cleverly left it wide open for fans like myself wondering what the heck is going to go on next.
Q: Jeremy, what was the biggest challenge for you in taking on this role? Was it the stuntwork and the physicality, the global bouncing around, or the pressure of stepping into a well-oiled machine that had set such a precedent?
Renner: Not getting hurt. Pretty much I can’t get injured. I wanted to do as much as I possibly could because of the responsibility for the authenticity of the three films prior. It would do a great injustice and disservice to this film if I could not perform what was required. I like those challenges and I like those physical obstacles. Outside of that, it’s a job. I go from page 1 to page 120 with a tremendous director and cast and writing and it’s exciting to go to work.
Q: Did you get hurt at all? Were there any mishaps?
Renner: I hurt my feelings here and there. I got banged up a little bit. But 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.
Q: With the amount of work that goes into a film like this with all the different locations and fight scenes, looking at it from start to finish, does it ever seem daunting and how do you stay focused with that workload?
Renner: 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. But for me, it was getting enough sleep and being physically adept enough to be able to perform when I needed to perform. That was it. Every day, I was fighting, training, stretching, whatever I had to do to get through the day. It was basic. It was sleep, eat, here’s food, here’s water, now go do this.
Tony Gilroy: Act! Now!
Renner: Those are really the treats when you have moments like I had with Edward (Norton) in our one little exchange and then I had a handful of them with Rachel. Those are like the little treats along the way that kept me going through the really physical part of the movie.
Q: For Jeremy, I just talked to Matt Damon over the weekend at Comic-Con and he told me how excited he was to see you in this film. Did he reach out to you at all when he knew you were taking on the legacy?
Renner: No, we didn’t reach out to each other at all and never spoke really creatively about it. I’ve known him for years. I inadvertently ran into him before we started and more just had a good time at a birthday party. That was about it.
Q: For Rachel, can you talk about playing an action character and what it was like riding behind Jeremy through the streets of Manila in that amazing motorcycle chase sequence?
Rachel Weisz: What I really liked about the tone of the Bourne films is that it’s very realistic so I’m not playing an action heroine. I’m playing a scientist who’s a pretty normal person. I’m not physically gifted in any way, so I think it’s always very, very realistic. She’s really scared, she’s really terrified, and then at the end, she gets to kick ass a little bit, but I’m not a super hero. As to what it was like to be on a bike behind Jeremy, it was really terrifying. Actually Jeremy told me today – he was very sweet, he never told me when we were in Manila – that that 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! Because I would have been “Oh my God, if he’s scared, then …” I just had to surrender. I just had to hold on, but I didn’t have to act. It was just terrifying.
Q: We discover in this that there are female agents out there. I’m curious if the idea was ever toyed with to have a full-on action hero female lead? And, if that had happened, Rachel, would you have been up for playing that?
Weisz: I was under the illusion that I was the female lead.
Tony Gilroy: No, if you were an agent.
Renner: Like if you were Joanna Bourne or something.
Weisz: I don’t know if it was ever toyed with or considered. You’d have to ask the Gilroys. Yeah, I’d be up for it. If they wrote it, I’d be up for it. (to the Gilroys) Was it toyed with?
Tony Gilroy: Well now we’ll starting toying again. I don’t know. The idea with Rachel was to take somebody who starts off as a victim and ends up being a full collaborator in her own survival. That’s as interesting as any secret agent. Her character is as interesting to me as any secret agent or spy that’s ever been part of a film before.
Q: Mr. Norton, your character is very complex and sees himself as a cog in the wheel but also introduces an interesting concept about the ‘sin eater.’ Does he think that he and his department are nobler than they actually are?
Edward Norton: I think the sense of your question is, ‘is he rationalizing corrupt behavior or does he have a point’? And I think I’d rather not answer the question. I think that’s a question that’s being purposely posed and that’s what makes Tony’s approach to this film more interesting to me than trafficking in villains and heroes if he would. I think a lot of what we see going on in the world every day that makes us possibly a little bit uncomfortable with what’s being done in our name and under our banner and all that kind of stuff has that question embedded within it. It has that question of is our security worth the compromise of our values and at what level? That’s the question. So, I enjoy the idea of those paradoxes and those rationalizations hanging out there for people to sit with and decide how they feel about this guy. I’m happy you’re asking the question and I’ll leave it at that.
Q: For Tony, what was it like working in the Philippines and how was it for you technically in terms of the advantages and disadvantages of filming in a busy city like that?
Tony Gilroy: We chose it, not just because it narratively fit with what we were doing, but because there really was a real film infrastructure there. There were really people that, when you told them what you wanted to do, knew what it was going to take, as opposed to going someplace where they just say yes, we can do that. What we were asking, the ask was huge. There was a real motivation and appetite to get us to go there so we knew we’d be able to get the kind of access to the things that we needed. I will say, I’ve shot all around the world, as a writer been on location, this is impossible. What we did is impossible any place else I’ve ever been. I mean, even just trying to shoot on the streets of New York for two weeks, just to have 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’s just such an upbeat, pleasant, positive attitude that the people have while we’re disrupting their lives and camped out in their neighborhood for a month and closing off their roads and blowing things up. It was very, very tough — tough places to work, tough city to get around in, and some really funky places we went — but the people made it possible.
Q: What about the challenges and difficulties of creating an original film that actually takes place during the course of a previously made film?
Tony Gilroy: They tried for a long time. A lot of smart people tried to figure out how to go forward after “Ultimatum” because it was wrapped up so beautifully. It was such a nice package. And I’m not sure. I never tried. I was never part of that. I’m not sure I could’ve figured out anything to do with that. By the time everybody had left and the party was over and they started the second round, “What do we do post Bourne?,” the first conversation was really like a game. It was like how can we go forward? What you could do is you could say there was a much larger conspiracy. You could say that that was only a small piece of this thing. Right? That’s a sexy idea. Everybody gets involved in that. Everybody likes that idea and you say “God, you know what else you could do? You could have “Ultimatum” play in the background of the first 12-15 minutes of the movie. There could be a phone call from the other movie to our movie. Everybody got very excited. Even Danny got excited. But it’s not the real deal. There’s no movie. All that’s very sexy. It’s like a beautiful shell, but there’s nothing. I didn’t get really interested, even in writing a script on it much less directing it. When the character dropped in the slot, when the character came through and we suddenly realized there’s a character that was as fundamental an issue, as fundamental a problem, as much meat on the bone as there was for Jason Bourne, but with a completely different… That’s when it got really interesting. And that’s when Danny and I started talking to each other, 19 times a day on the phone, as opposed to once a day. (to Danny) Do you have anything else to add to that?
Danny Gilroy: No. I mean, it was pretty effortless. The mythology of the first franchise sort of allowed itself to be expanded upon. It was interesting to shift the angle on it and then say “Well, this was going on simultaneously.” There was enough real estate and open space that you could fill in a pretty interesting backdrop and future for the franchise.
Tony Gilroy: And it was fun to put them together then in the end to really make sure that everything worked. For the people that are the super freak fans that are really paying [attention], there’s a lot of dissecting enjoyment for them there.
Q: For Tony and Dan, can you talk about how you collaborated on writing this? Did it come easy for you and was there any rivalry as far as the ideas you had?
Tony Gilroy: (to Dan) Don’t answer that! We started writing a long time ago, and then, when we realized they only gave you one paycheck for two people, we went off on our separate ways.
Dan Gilroy: That’s really true.
Tony Gilroy: We wrote together. We wrote for John Hughes. We wrote for Imagine. A lot of unproduced scripts.
Dan Gilroy: And we talk all the time about ideas. We’re creatively on the same page. There wasn’t one argument. There wasn’t even one raised voice. I mean, there wasn’t. It was long hours. He’s not a screamer.
Tony Gilroy: You’re better dealing all the time. I mean, the way that we work, Dan is kind of the grand version of the way you want to work with everybody. My philosophy is to just vampire off of everybody, surround myself with as many filmmakers as I possibly can and make sure that every department head is a filmmaker, that everybody that I’m talking to all day long is a filmmaker and knows the script and wants to make the movie, that every actor on the show is a filmmaker and wants to make the same show, and then you just keep your ears open and better deal all day long. What’s the best idea? What’s the best way to do it? It’s a very greedy ‘make me look good’ kind of process.
Q: Paul Greengrass did a lot to establish the aesthetic of the Bourne trilogy with the last two films. I’m curious if, in addition to putting your own spin onto it, you looked back to his films to try and create a similar aesthetic?
Tony Gilroy: Robert Elswit shot this film with me. We did two other films together. He’s my other super soul brother hanging out. We spent a lot of time looking at the previous three films. All three films. We looked at “Bourne Identity,” too. We really had a lot of conversations about how much we should hew to what had been there before. There’s a real inside baseball way of how they approached a lot of things and how they shot it. I think we felt that we had a pretty legitimate opportunity because we’re saying it’s much larger. We’re blowing open all the doors on this and showing a much wider horizon and that we had a much bigger canvas. We had almost I don’t know if it’s a responsibility or a right. We had free rein into having a slightly different visual vocabulary for that part of the film. When you get to the action, it has to have the maximum testosterone and energy it possibly can. There’s a lot of ways to do that. I like knowing where I am in action sequences if I’m supposed to. I’m a big fan of that. A lot of attention went into that. It’s how can we keep the energy up and orient people. All the conversations and all the anxiety, by the third day that we were shooting, the residue of that is what carried us through the next hundred days. We never really spent that much time looking back. It’s something we thought about.
Q: What’s the secret to orienting the audience in action sequences so that they know what’s going on?
Tony Gilroy: The secret is writing to a location. The secret is saying “Here is where we are,” whether it’s a street, whether it’s a set, or whether it’s Monument Valley or wherever it is, and step by step, rigorously writing a script, writing into every moment and not faking anything and not cutting any corners. It’s just attention to detail. It’s stitch after stitch after stitch. There’s no shortcut. It’s the same thing as trying to write behavior. If you want to write characters’ behavior, a lot of times you want to shortcut and say “God, I really want to have him do this. I want to have him do that.” You really have to get inside every single one of them and say “What would I do if I was this person and what are the things I might do next?” If I’ve got a gun, you need to put somebody and they’re hiding here and someone’s over there and someone’s over there. There are certain things that have to happen. If you use the limitations as your friend, it always comes out on top. If something is wrong that’s blocking you, this is a problem, then turn it into an advantage. It’s pretending for real. It’s the same thing that all these great actors do with every performance that they calibrate a little along the way. It’s the same thing on a macro level with choreography.
Dan Gilroy: The scene in the house went through a dozen drafts. I mean, finally by the tenth pass we were sending back diagrams of what the house looks like and then we’d redesign the house and there’s a hole in the floor and we need to do this.
Tony Gilroy: And then you rebuild the set to what you need. It’s just trying to be as bespoke as possible all the time.
Q: How long did it take you guys to film the motorcycle chase sequence and what kind of conversations did you have about approaching that in a different way than we’ve seen in the other Jason Bourne films?
Tony Gilroy: I wish I had the accounting on this because I’ve been asked that question [before]. I do not know how many days we shot. I know that long before, even before we had the script finished, I sat down with Dan Bradley who had done the other films, who’s the second unit director and the stunt coordinator and much more than all of that, before there was even a script, and got together with him and said “Look, here’s what’s coming up and I need you desperately.” We started conversations right then, and it goes from the very first preamble conversation to what’s the best motorcycle chase that’s ever been done and why doesn’t anybody do it and why are they all limited in some way and how can we make it better. 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 going “Oh, and then he’s going to go here and that’s going to go there and then he’s going to spin out.” It’s literally six-year-olds playing underneath a Christmas tree all the way to guys with welders and chainsaws in a shop in Manila building the rigs to make it. You just … it’s like you said before. How do you go? If you thought about it all at once, you’d never do it. It’s like having kids. If you knew what you were getting into, you’d go “Forget it. I can’t handle it.” But you go and all of a sudden you’re pregnant. Then the kid is there, and you’ve got to feed him, and you’ve got to put clothes on him, and it’s just one stupid little step after another. When you get to the end, you go “Wow! What did we do?!” And then, we end up here.
Dan Gilroy: And then, they go to college.
Tony Gilroy: That’s right.
Renner: And then, they hate you for it.
Tony Gilroy: I know.
Q: Tony, can you talk about stepping into the director’s chair after writing the first three films?
Tony Gilroy: It’s not something I ever thought I would do. It was not on my bucket list at all. I never even thought I’d be writing another one. In that sense, it was no different than any of the other films that I’ve directed. I wrote them. They were mine so I got to direct them the first time sort of working on the script. It happened so incrementally as I said before. We started to play a game and the game got more interesting. Then the character came alive, and I had been looking for what to do next, and I was trying to find something in the world of big movies. I wanted to try before I got too old to do a big movie and I’d 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 a 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. It was quite surprising to me.
Q: For Jeremy and Tony, how difficult were the scenes you shot in the snow and extreme weather?
Renner: I think it was for everybody. I mean, cold is cold no matter if you’re holding the camera or if you’re in front of it.
Q: But not everybody was there.
Tony Gilroy: We were there. Danny didn’t go there. I don’t remember you being there.
Danny Gilroy: I was in St. Maarten, I think, if I remember correctly.
Tony Gilroy: But we were there.
Renner: Yeah, we were there. You don’t ask for that sort of physical torture but it’s certainly very telling and makes it maybe even easier to play because it’s part of the scenes. We weren’t shooting in the Rockies and pretending it was summer. It was cold and it was supposed to be. The only thing that was really challenging was that I’m supposed to be a tough guy and to be able to think “Oh yeah, it’s not cold.” But I’m freezing. I can’t be freezing. But yeah, it’s another one of those challenges that you have to overcome. It wasn’t easy but it was beautiful. It became a character in itself, I think.
Tony Gilroy: It slows your brain down. It saps your energy over the course of a day. I had never worked sustained. I had to buy all the clothes to go there. I didn’t own all that stuff. I’m not a skier.
Renner: You never saw his face. He was wrapped. He had batteries in his gloves. He had heated underwear. He had everything that could be powered on. He’s not very good in the cold. He asked me to jump in the water naked.
Tony Gilroy: Sure. I was there.
Renner: He did say that he was willing to do it with me.
Tony Gilroy: I did say that. But I didn’t mean it.
Renner: I know you didn’t mean it, but I’m glad that you said that.
Tony Gilroy: But I’ll do it. I didn’t want to.
Renner: I appreciate it.
Q: Tony, I’m curious about the actors from the previous Bourne films that were in this. Was it difficult to get them to come back for small roles and did you feel it was important to have those characters return to bridge the films?
Tony Gilroy: Yeah, it was essential to have them come back, absolutely essential. I mean, if you’ve seen the film, you know how we use them. No, it was absolutely essential to have them come back and we even looked to see if we could, 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. We couldn’t have done it without them.
Q: Your film has the distinction of being one of the first films to junket in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado tragedy. Could you give us your thoughts on that? Also, how do you approach promoting or opening an action film that glorifies a lethal protagonist in the wake of such a tragedy?
Tony Gilroy: I’ll answer for everybody. It’s way too soon. We’re not spokesmen for anything. I think the only thing that matters is the needs of the people that are directly involved in what happened last night. I think anything else is really presumptuous and silly for us to comment about. Sorry. That’s the answer to both of your questions.
Q: Mr. Norton, you’ve started Classified Films. Do you have any advice for young creative people about how to start something from scratch?
Norton: Classified was just a production company my partners and I have had. Originally, we put it together to make our own movies and then we started expanding out into backing other filmmakers and their passion projects and things like that. The people involved in it are a writer and some actors. None of us set out to be movie producers really. But, I guess the most I would say is, for young creative people, I don’t think you should sit around and wait for people to give you an opportunity to express yourself or do your work or whatever. Actors have to be producers, and writers have to be producers. In the beginning, you’ve got to try to manifest it for yourself. I think a lot of times in our business, things that get prominent or suddenly become a well-known shingle started off really as just a couple of artists who were trying to create their own opportunities. So, I would just say don’t wait on anybody else and set it up for yourself and do it and wear all the hats if you have to.
Q: For the actors, if you got to choose your own adversary and had to go up against either Aaron Cross or Jason Bourne, who would you choose and why?
Weisz: Who would I choose to go up against? I really don’t know how to answer that question with any… Would I want to win or lose? I don’t know if I can answer that question.
Tony Gilroy: Tough question.
Weisz: Yeah, very.
Norton: This might be one of those moments where we remind somebody about the fine line between what’s real and what’s not.
Tony Gilroy: Next!
Renner: I’ll take the Hulk.
“The Bourne Legacy” opens in theaters on August 10th.