EXCLUSIVE: When Paul Greengrass told Deadline during the awards season push for Captain Phillips that he would never make another Jason Bourne film, he was sincere. And why not believe him, when he followed two superb Bourne films with that terrific Somali pirate drama, and had so many other hot button projects behind it to spark him? Here, the documentarian-turned director of Bloody Sunday, United 93, Green Zone and now a trilogy of Bourne films based on the Robert Ludlum novels explains why he and close collaborator Matt Damon changed their minds. And how, with the help of their Oscar-winning editor-turned screenwriter Christopher Rouse, they’ve positioned everyone’s favorite amnesiac assassin to go far into a sequels future, a big reward for the patience shown by Universal’s Donna Langley and Jeff Shell.
DEADLINE: Seeing Jason Bourne was like spending a couple hours with a long lost friend I really missed.
GREENGRASS: That was my ambition for it, really. It comes down to, what are you really trying to do with it? I felt very strongly, and discussed this with Donna Langley and everybody, that I can’t reboot the franchise, it wasn’t what it needed. What the franchise needs is exactly what you just said. We needed to make one that makes people who love those three movies feel like they’re seeing a long-lost friend. But at the same time, it had to be a new chapter. It should be recognizably a Bourne movie, but a new chapter in that story. That was really my mission statement.
DEADLINE: Last time we spoke, you said that once Jason Bourne figured out who he was, what was the point in going further? Was there a specific kernel of an idea or a flashpoint that changed this?
GREENGRASS: What I told you was absolutely true. I genuinely felt that was it. I didn’t sense any unfinished business with it. It was Matt and Chris Rouse, who had always been a very close friend and collaborator of mine. He and Matt started to say things to me, 18 months or so ago. Things like, “You know, the world’s changed, and maybe we should think about doing one.” I was very much a skeptic. I’d say, “Why would I do that? We’ve kind of made that movie before.” Eventually, we sat down to lunch to talk seriously, despite my skepticism. Their point of view was, maybe the changed world opens up possibilities for a new adventure. I could see that was true. One thing Matt said really stuck with me, and even though it sounds obvious, I’d never honestly thought about it from that perspective. He said, “We got lucky, to have an audience that really loved what we did with that character. That’s a precious thing, and serving that audience can be a noble endeavor.” Afterward, the combination of Chris and Matt feeling such a strong instinct there was another to be done, and the idea it could actually a noble endeavor to entertain people with a character in a world people love, landed with me. Why not try and serve that? On its own, that wouldn’t have been enough to get me there. But it got me to a place of, let’s block out some time and try. The understanding was, well, if we can find it, we’ll do it, and if we can’t, we won’t. As simple as that.
DEADLINE: What a precarious position for a major studio to be in, on one of its biggest franchises.
GREENGRASS: Universal was incredibly good, in the way that they midwifed it. Jeff Shell and Donna were relaxed and very instrumental, because one other thing that was an issue for both Matt and I was, if we’re going to do one, we need to make it like a normal film. Not like the previous ones. They followed the inevitable nature of a franchise, where you start with a release date and reverse your way into it, even if it’s not really ready to shoot it. That whole process becomes unbelievably cruel and that’s not a criticism of the studios. It’s inevitable, the only way those big franchises can get made, because it brings a certain order into the chaos of the movie.
DEADLINE: Why fight it then?
GREENGRASS: Well, we found it made the process very unforgiving, and you get to a point where you go, we don’t have to do that. If we’re going to make this film, it’s going to be a choice for us, for all of us. We can sit down and see if we can figure out an idea, then write a script. And then if we like it and you like it, we’ll go on and make it. We set up a really simple process to production, and they were really good about that. I think they were delighted that we were even thinking about it. Donna protected us and allowed us to make it the way that we wanted to. And what was amazing to me was how quickly it fell into place, after we asked ourselves the question: where has Bourne been?
DEADLINE: Christopher Rouse won an Oscar for editing The Bourne Ultimatum. He hasn’t had his name on a script before this. In the years between Bourne films, we’ve seen WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, the Sony hack, all kinds of stuff has happened in the world and they factor in the plot of Jason Bourne. What role did Rouse play in unlocking this narrative?
GREENGRASS: I can’t speak to The Bourne Identity because I wasn’t there, but in both of the films I made, Chris was a very strong, powerful authorial voice and he has written on all the Bourne films. As I have, as Matt has. It’s just that this time, we’ve taken credit, having been there from the start to the end. One of the joys of making films, if you’re me, is working with brilliant people, and he’s certainly one of the most brilliant that I’ve ever worked with. Chris is very rigorous, as all editors are. We sat down and focused on what’s important, asking the right questions. Where’s Bourne been? What’s he doing? We ended Ultimatum with Bourne saying, “I remember. I remember everything. I’m no longer Jason Bourne.” Well, what does Bourne do? He’s not going to find some woman and settle down and raise kids and work on a farm. That’s just not Jason Bourne. We couldn’t cheat on the fact that he has remembered everything and we couldn’t build another story where he doesn’t remember a bit. That would be a cheat. So, if he remembers every killing, that brings guilt, despite him renouncing the identity of Jason Bourne. Matt said, “Okay, this is a man who’s lived for ten years in the shadows, gripped with guilt, stuck with it pecking at his liver on a daily basis.”
DEADLINE: That explains the opening scene, where he is in some brawl in the desert surrounded by tough looking people, the one we’ve seen in all the ads. Was he basically numbing himself by taking these beatings, paying a penance for his guilt by taking part in these human cock fights?
GREENGRASS: Exactly, and more to the point, it led up to the insight that there must come a moment where he can’t do it anymore. And once we got that, now what is he going to do? And then, you’ve got the tipping point for a journey. You don’t know where, but it seemed to us that the only thing Bourne would want to do, when he reached the point where he couldn’t carry on any more, would be to come in. He’d want to come back in. But of course, you might have to desire to make your peace with the system, but that system is broken. That felt to us like a really interesting way to unlock a way of turning Bourne that wasn’t predictable. Bourne was the renegade, the enemy of the system. We felt like we’d got to the outer edge of where you can drive that. What was interesting was to start to rebuild Bourne as a man who wants to come back. What would that mean to him? That introduced ideas of patriotism, and it also helped to define Bourne. We didn’t want to make Bourne the same as Snowden. They’re different. Bourne doesn’t do it…he’s not trying to destroy the system. He’s trying to find his identity. It’s an entirely personal journey.
DEADLINE: After watching a Jason Bourne screening, I got in the car to drive home, and heard on the radio that some terrorist drove a truck into a crowd of people in Nice, killing dozens. Your movie takes on complex geopolitical themes like the dangers of Big Brother and how surveillance capabilities can be used for corrupt purposes. You’ve touched on parallel themes in your work as a journalist, and in films like Bloody Sunday where governments abuse power. And you are developing a remake of George Orwell’s cautionary tale 1984. As I listened to the unfolding Nice tragedy, there was clear sentiment that the best way to combat these incidents is surveillance, accumulating as much intelligence as possible through covert means. What do you make of this tangled situation?
GREENGRASS: Are you asking me personally what I think of it?
GREENGRASS: At one point in the film, somebody says public safety versus individual privacy is the great debate of our time. For me, I see that not as a right and a wrong, but a collision of two rights. Citizens want both those things. They want to be safe, and it’s vital that we’re kept safe, and vital that our government be empowered by us to keep us safe. That’s fundamental to democracy. On the other hand, individual privacy and the individual rights underpin our freedoms, and they have to be protected, too. There’s a tension between those two things. I think the character says, how we resolve that tension is going to be very important, moving forward. Fundamental to resolving it is not to see it as black and white, one way or the other. We’ve got to understand that it’s necessary in a democracy that those two things are in tension, and it means that our lawmakers have to recognize that too, which they do in large part. I think it’s also incumbent upon us as private citizens to recognize that there is this trade-off. Does that answer it? But what was important in this film is where Bourne is. He says at one point, “I’m not on your side.” He’s not anybody’s side. He’s the spirit of conscience, of individuality. That is important. The other thing I would say goes back to the point about serving the audience. Bourne movies do that, they’re entertainment and hopefully we are giving the audience a great ride. That is one of the things cinema should do. It’s a great, noble mission to make people feel good when they come out of the cinema on a Saturday night. If, along the way, there are things that make the audience think, well, great. But the fundamental purpose in this is for people to have fun and feel good.
DEADLINE: In service of that, your climactic action sequence with Damon’s Bourne and Vincent Cassel’s rival assassin was French Connection good. Compare the ambition and difficulty of execution to the signature action scenes in your other two Bourne films.
GREENGRASS: Once we said let’s do it, right then you’re in a place where you know that the bar is set high from the previous movies. That was part of my reluctance to return, to be honest. I remember saying, “You know, we’ll never be able to top what we’ve done. We’ll never be as good.” It created a bit of a funk for me. I was ducking it. But in the end, you’re only going to know if you work hard at coming up with your best ideas, and having the best people around you. Vegas, we always thought if we could get on the Strip, which Frank Marshall and Greg Goodman spent a huge amount of time getting the city to agree to, we could produce something special. I like to think that the car chases in Bourne movies are special, going back to Doug Liman’s original movie. That chase with the mini in Paris, that was brilliant. I thought we did a pretty good car chase in Moscow, and the one in New York was pretty good too. But I felt that with this one, if we could be on the Strip in Vegas at night — we had never done a night chase — that we could really just kick ass, as you say in America. We might get the audience to go, ‘well, that is fantastic. That is a great car-chase.’ As a filmmaker, it’s fun to do those things. They’re a hellish amount of work, but the idea that you can be in the realm of the great car chases of the past, and put your best foot forward, to be dancing on that dance floor?
DEADLINE: Do you have a benchmark action scene in some other movie?
GREENGRASS: Well, you mentioned it. The French Connection is always the one.
GREENGRASS: Because it’s the best. It’s the greatest, the most real, the most sustained. You feel speed, but most of all, and this goes to the heart of great action, it’s really about character. Action is only really compelling when it reveals character. Character revealed through action, and not action for its own sake. I think we reach that moment in our film, you know that it is Matt Damon versus Vincent Cassel, and you want to see the two face off. And they do.
DEADLINE: Alicia Vikander really gives this film a shot of life as this rising star in the CIA, and you want to see where her relationship with Bourne goes. Was the construction of that character and her storyline done with an eye toward providing a place where this franchise can go next?
GREENGRASS: Very much. These franchises are really difficult to build for all the studios, and if you’re lucky enough to have been associated with one as I have, one that people love, you want the best for it. Renewing it, giving it somewhere to go that feels organic as opposed to just stuck in there, it is the hardest thing. That’s what I wanted to do. Once I decided to do another, it became very important to me to try, with some subtlety and elegance, to hand it back to Universal with places to go and characters that take it forward in a way that felt elegant and not false. This studio has been very good to me. Alicia’s character was part of that. Riz Ahmed’s character was, also. I wanted those characters to be of our landscape, today. Bourne Ultimatum and Bourne Supremacy were very much films of the mid-90s and mid-2000s. But we’re in a very different world now, and the audience that goes to see these movies now has a different way of looking at the world. Theirs is a world dominated by social media, and the entire digital realm. I wanted to create characters that lived in their world, and hopefully somebody might want to pick that up. I’m sure they will, and you’ve got places to go with Bourne and with the other characters. So, yes, it was in my mind, and it was an important part of the creative mission for me.
DEADLINE: Well, how about you, picking it up?
GREENGRASS: You mean, would I take that next journey?
DEADLINE: Yeah, sure.
GREENGRASS: Listen, at the end of Ultimatum, I felt very strongly that I was done, and I said so. Here we are all those years later, talking. It took me nearly ten years to feel that I had another one to make. I’m not going to make that mistake now. All I know is I really enjoyed doing it and I’m really proud of it. I think we’ve revived it and got it back to where it needs to be. I think that I’m going to have a holiday, and then I’ll go off and do some other movie. That’s sort of as far ahead as I can see. And it’s important to see how it does, and that audiences want to know what happens in his journey.
DEADLINE: Last question. Deadline has written about your obsession with making a movie about 60s guitar hero Jimi Hendrix with Thomas Tull at Legendary. You guys shelved the project when the late musician’s estate wouldn’t grant rights to his music, but now they have. Why is Jimi Hendrix so important to you?
GREENGRASS: I suppose it just takes me back to being 15 years old. When Hendrix died, it had a big effect on me, as it did on many young boys of my age. I loved his music, and of course if you were a Londoner, there was a special relationship to Hendrix. He started in London, and he came back and died in London. It has always been a dream, and Thomas is a great person to pursue the dream with. In his own way, he’s a total Hendrix fanboy, and he was able to deal with the Hendrix estate and get some understanding, which I never believed would happen. Only Thomas could have done that. Scott Silver, he and I are talking about how we might do it. It’s very much alive, but we’re not going to make it tomorrow. But here’s the thing: Scott said something to me I totally agree with. This is a film that has to work if you didn’t know who Jimi Hendrix was. It’s got to be a film that works on its own merits, which incidentally he did with 8 Mile. That’s why he’s a brilliant person to write it. If we can get right, it’ll be a film about the end of the ‘60s and what happened, and why that period was very important, and also about the dreams from that period.
Hendrix in many ways is a very, very important cultural figure. I remember how I felt about him when I was a kid as he was developing the music. But I look back as an adult and see a tremendously important figure in American culture. Because he looked toward so many things that were wonderful and idealistic about American culture and what it could be, and what it could do. And also his life was lost for many of the bad things that happened in that culture and in our world. Somehow we’ve got to find a way of telling that story, that works for an audience today. And that honors the genius of the music, and sets it in the context of a very important time for America.