Writer-director Tony Gilroy, left, and actor Jeremy Renner at the Four… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
Matt Damon didn't want to make another Jason Bourne movie, and neither did director Paul Greengrass. When your leading man and star filmmaker have departed one of your most profitable series, the alternatives aren't great.
But in today's Hollywood, those options do not include throwing in the towel.
Opening Friday, "The Bourne Legacy"is Universal Pictures' audacious answer to its spy series quandary. Rather than ditch Damon for another actor — the case when Harrison Ford replaced Alec Baldwin in the Tom Clancy movies or repeatedly with James Bond — the studio decided to create a parallel plot with a new actor, "The Hurt Locker's" Jeremy Renner, and added a fresh director, "Michael Clayton's" Tony Gilroy.
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"It's one of our most lucrative franchises," said Donna Langley, Universal's co-chairman, of the three "Bourne" films, which have sold a combined $944 million in worldwide tickets. "So it was absolutely imperative that we figure it out."
It was easier said than done.
Before picking the current story and cast, Universal and Captivate Entertainment, which manages the movie rights of the late Bourne novelist Robert Ludlum, considered a prequel that could star a younger actor as Jason Bourne. Gilroy initially declined working on the project, unsure there was a tale worth exploring. Even after settling on the current story, the studio and its filmmakers pondered other actors besides Renner to play the part, a shortlist that including Ryan Gosling and Tom Hardy.
And all the while the production had to dodge the barbs of Greengrass, who suggested a fourth movie be called "The Bourne Redundancy," and Damon, who disparaged Gilroy's talents.
"We had every conversation that you can imagine," said Ben Smith, a producer at Captivate.
In a summer in which Universal's"Battleship"will lose about $100 million and its"Snow White and the Huntsman"will struggle to break even, the studio badly needs its $130-million "Bourne Legacy" to connect. Unlike many successful series, the cerebral spy tales filled with double and triple crossings have attracted strong reviews and robust attendance from older moviegoers, who typically shy away from most big-budget summer fare.
The studio wants the new film to succeed not only as a stand-alone production but also as the first entry in a potential cycle of movies. But Universal has struggled to create a separate identity for "The Bourne Legacy," which focuses on a clandestine program to create superhuman soldiers. Renner says some of his friends still mistakenly believe he's playing Damon's character.
"I hope it starts a conversation — that there's excitement about the possibilities," said Renner, who is committed to star in a sequel should there be one, about "The Bourne Legacy." "That would be the ultimate compliment: I can't wait to see where this goes next."
While 2002's "The Bourne Identity" was directed by Doug Liman, Damon and Greengrass collaborated on 2004's "The Bourne Supremacy" and 2007's"The Bourne Ultimatum,"the latter of which was the best-reviewed of the trilogy, the highest-grossing and the winner of three technical Oscars.
When we last saw Jason Bourne five years ago in that film, it appeared the trilogy's amnesiac spy had come full circle, sorting out not only who he was but also where the government's bad apples resided. Damon and Greengrass, who later would collaborate on"Green Zone,"said they didn't want to make another "Bourne" film without each other.
When Greengrass thought scripts for a fourth film weren't worthy, the series looked just like Bourne himself at the start of the initial production: dead in the water.
"Everybody was excited to do another one," said Frank Marshall, who's produced all the "Bourne" films, including Gilroy's new entry. "But the question became, 'What's the story?'"
He wasn't the only one who wondered about that.
As Damon and Greengrass were making the Iraq war drama "Green Zone" in 2008, Universal hired George Nolfi, who worked on "The Bourne Ultimatum" and wrote and directed Damon's"The Adjustment Bureau," to come up with new adventures for Jason Bourne. The studio penciled in a summer 2010 release date.
But in some ways, it was a doomed assignment. At the end of the third film, Damon's character has sorted out his identity and more or less decided his spy days are over. No one liked Nolfi's script, and a separate effort by screenwriter Joshua Zetumer (who penned the new "RoboCop" remake) was equally unsuccessful in the producers' eyes. A number of other writers pitched ideas, "and nothing really clicked," Marshall said.
Greengrass by this time was finishing "Green Zone," which required extensive reshoots and ultimately fizzled at the box office. The British director now had made three straight action movies with Damon, and like a married couple feeling a seven-year-itch, needed a break. With Greengrass out, so was Damon.