After writing the first three Bourne films, Tony Gilroy finally got the honor of directing The Bourne Legacy, which he co-wrote with his brother Dan Gilroy. In this fourth installment, we find out that there was more to the story than just Jason Bourne. Jeremy Renner replaces Matt Damon as Aaron Cross, another Treadstone agent and total badass. We recently got the chance to talk to Mr. Gilroy at the film’s press day and he told us all about shooting in the Phillipines and what the secret to an action sequence is.
What was it like working in the capital of the Philippines, and how was it technically in terms of the advantages and disadvantages of working in a very busy city like that?
Tony Gilroy: We chose it not just because it narratively fit with what we were doing but also because there 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. What we asked for was huge. There was a real motivation and appetite to get us to go there, so we knew we would be able to get the kind of access to the things that we needed. I’ve shot all around the world, as a writer I’ve been on location. And what we did in Manila is impossible anywhere else. Even just trying to shoot in the streets of New York for two weeks is a nightmare. I can’t imagine doing this any place else. The people were so extraordinarily nice. There’s just such an upbeat and pleasant attitude that the people have while we’re disrupting their lives, camped out in their neighborhood for a months, closing off their roads and blowing things up. It was very tough, but the people made it possible.
What were some of the difficulties of creating an original film that actually takes place during the course of a previous film?
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 really 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. 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 (my brother) Danny Gilroy 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 [personality] that’s when it got really interesting. That’s when Danny and I started talking to each other.
What was it like to step into the director’s chair after writing the first three films?
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. 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.
Can you talk about the writing process?
My philosophy is to surround myself around as many filmmakers as possible then you keep your ears open and ask what’s the better idea. It’s a very greedy ‘make me look good’ kind of process.
Did you look back at the aesthetic of the old Bourne films to integrate it into this film?
Robert Elswit shot this film with me, we did two other films together and he’s my super soul brother. We spend a lot of time together, looking at the previous three films. We had a lot of conversations on what we should use that had already been there before. There was an inside baseball way of how they shot it and approached the last three films. I think we felt that we had a pretty legitimate opportunity because we’re saying it’s a much larger opening and we’re blowing open all the doors on this film with a new canvas. We had free reign with a slightly different visual vocabulary and when it got to the action it had to have the maximum testosterone as possible. I like knowing where I am in action sequences. A lot of the attention went into how could we keep the energy up and orient people. We never really spent that much time looking back. It’s something we thought about.
What is the secret to an action sequence?
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.
How long did it take film the motorcycle chase sequence?
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” and 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. 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 got to feed him and you 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.
Was it difficult to get the actors in the previous films to come back for small roles? And did you feel it was important to have those characters come back?
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 out that 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.
The Bourne Legacy hits theaters Friday, August 10.