Tony Gilroy has been working on the Bourne franchise since the first movie, but even he’s surprised that he ended up in the director’s chair for the new installment, The Bourne Legacy. There’s been plenty of turnover on this series — original director Doug Liman clashed with Universal and was replaced by Paul Greengrass, then Greengrass and Matt Damon left after the third movie — but Gilroy has been a credited writer on each of the films while at the same time nurturing his own directing career (he helmed Best Picture nominee Michael Clayton). So, how did Gilroy take over for Greengrass, and how was the decision made to replace Damon with new series star Jeremy Renner? Gilroy rang up Vulture for a candid chat about what went on behind the scenes.
You were in a very privileged position when you were casting this movie: You got to see almost every eligible actor in town. What kind of conclusions did you draw about the modern-day actor under 40?
I haven’t gotten that question! Wow. You know, I had this fantasy when we started that it was going to be very easy and I just had to take a couple meetings and it would work itself out, and I suddenly realized I was going to have to meet everyone. And at first I thought, What a drag, because there were going to be a lot of people [to meet] who I like who were completely not right for this. And then I realized it’s this amazing opportunity to walk through the forest and see all of the timber that you would conceivably use for the rest of your life. There were people I met along the way that were completely surprising and not what I expected at all and people I completely connected with … and there were people that really fell off my truck, in a way, where you sort of go, “Wow. There’s really nothing there.” That was a really amazing, kind of exhausting, and nerve-racking odyssey.
You cast Jeremy Renner and Oscar Isaac, two American men, but in other action films and superhero movies, we seem to be importing a lot of our machismo from abroad. Did you notice any trends by country when you were casting this thing?
I think you sort of wonder, Why do we have all these guys in the fifties and sixties and seventies that seem to be in shorter supply than we’d like right now? And one of my theories is that the volunteer army hasn’t really helped us that much, in terms of Hollywood: [You don’t have] the guys who came out of World War II who got plucked out of their lives and sent around the world. You look at the Robert Mitchums and the Lee Marvins and the Bill Holdens, you look at people coming out of real experiences, and there was a more resonant life experience then. I think that’s part of it; I think that celebrity culture doesn’t help, and I think that superhero movies are really emasculating, ultimately. You don’t really get to see past the costume and a lot of people get trapped in the green screen, trapped in the scale of the movie, and trapped in the costume, and they don’t really get a chance to shine or build the kind of chops that they need to become something else.
At what point did Jeremy Renner get cast? Initially, he didn’t seem to be on the leaked short lists for the role.
My memory of it is that there we did two big waves of screen tests. He wasn’t on the first bunch of lists that we had, and he hadn’t been available because the Avengers schedule was so up in the air and they were so sketchy about putting that together … and then all of a sudden, he was on an “available” list. Literally, on a Monday morning, it was like “red alert.” He hit the trifecta for us of what we needed to play the role, so we sent him a script right away and then went to Germany to talk to him.
Did you have any doubts about returning to the franchise after the third movie?
I mean, my involvement had completely evaporated. I turned in Ultimatum and they got green-lit and they started, and I went off and made Michael Clayton. I could not have been more outside the gate. I had nothing to do with it for years, and everything I knew about it was what I read about in the paper, really. I know that they spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to continue with Jason Bourne and how to continue with Ultimatum and then I watched, like everyone else watched, from a distance. It must have been a couple of months later when I took a meeting with the [Robert Ludlum] estate, just a really casual meeting, just a cup of coffee to sort of hear out their problems. It couldn’t have been more incremental: I just called them back a couple of weeks later and I said I’d look at the third movie, which I hadn’t seen, and I said, “If I think of anything, I’ll give you a call,” and just came back at them with the first little simple idea. Then I came back for a couple of weeks as a problem solver, you know, like, “Why don’t you pay me for a couple of weeks to go prospecting over there? I’ll dig some holes in the ground and see if I find anything.” And then that got more interesting and then the character came into view and I was like, Wow, this is getting strong, this is getting seductive. But, man, if you had asked me two and a half years ago if I ever thought that this was something I would do, it’d probably be one of the last things that I would ever have thought I’d be involved in.
It’s been a contentious process, at times.
It’s been somewhat well documented that [the Bourne franchise] not been well organized; it’s not been the space program. It’s been a very shambolic success. Still, there’s something about the DNA that got started in the beginning … there’s been an integrity to it, and I think having Matt Damon pin that integrity down and having Doug Liman’s funky, dirty-on-the-ground filmmaking and Paul’s journalistic integrity, that’s helped. As bent and crazy as the process got and as many people didn’t get along, no one ever tarnished that basic element of truth, and that’s been the one thing that’s held it together.
I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the fact that your first screen credit was writing The Cutting Edge, which has become a franchise all its own. Did it surprise you that the movie has spawned so many sequels?
I don’t know if it was the second one or the fourth one or the fifth one, but I literally saw a promo for one of them an hour before it was on TV, and I had never heard anything about it. No one ever told me! If I told you how little money I get for these sequels … I called my lawyer and I go, “I made up these characters in the original screenplay!” I mean, I get nothing. I don’t even know how many they’ve made! I think [the characters] even have children now, and their children skate or something. It’s kind of shocking and kind of annoying, if you want to know the truth.
If you got residuals based on the number of times the first film has been shown at sleepovers, you’d be a much wealthier man.
It was very, very popular. My son is 25 now, but when he played in the Westside Soccer League, that was a very big deal with the sisters of the kids that he played with. [Laughs.]