Director Paul Greengrass on why he came back to Jason Bourne


Director Paul Greengrass didn’t kick off the Jason Bourne franchise, but he’s certainly made it his own. Over the course of sequels like The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, the series has become synonymous with the filmmaker’s own distinctive brand of handheld, documentary-inspired filmmaking, to such a degree that when filmmaker Tony Gilroy stepped in to make the spinoff The Bourne Legacy, it almost played like a Greengrass tribute film, signature shaky cam and all.

It only makes Jason Bourne, which opens this Friday, all the more notable. Nine years after swearing he and star Matt Damon were done, Greengrass is back, and this time he not only directed the film but co-wrote it as well. I jumped on the phone with the 60-year-old filmmaker to talk about his return to the series, why the character of Jason Bourne remains relevant today, and to find out just how many cars he had to destroy to pull off that Las Vegas car chase.

Originally the next Bourne film was going to be a sequel focused on Jeremy Renner’s character, and you and Matt were still staying away. Why did you feel it was time to finally come back?

I didn’t plan to, it just sort of happened. It was really Matt and my friend [editor] Chris Rouse. They felt that we could do one, that enough time had passed and the world had changed, and maybe it would be great to find out what Bourne had been doing and see if we could craft a story. I was very skeptical — to begin with, anyway. We had lunch one day and talked about it, sort of in a serious way, and one of the things that Matt said that really landed with me was that we’re very lucky to have an audience that loves the character, and loves the world, and loves what we do. Maybe we should do them the honor of seeing if we can find [a story to tell].

I thought, "Okay, I get it." It doesn’t get you [to the point of saying yes], but it gets you to the point of wanting to see if you could. So we blocked out some time, and Chris and I sat down, and actually, I was amazed how quickly that we found the story. It all came together really quickly from there.

One dynamic that struck me is that Bourne is a character that has been wronged by these government agencies, and he sometimes takes extreme measures to set things right. But his entire struggle is that he also wants to be a good person. With so much hostility and anti-government sentiment in the air lately, it was interesting to see a movie that seemed to be saying, "Okay, these institutions may be corrupt, but you can’t just flip the table. People still need do the right thing, otherwise the center won’t hold."

Exactly! Genuinely, I’m thrilled that you got that, because that was very important to us. It felt to us that it was less interesting to tell a new chapter of the Bourne story, just exploring him being more and more of an outlaw, do you know what I mean? Fundamental to it was that there would come a point where, given his emotional distress, he would reach the tipping point and want to come back in — then face the dilemma of wanting to do his duty as a patriot, but not being able to come into a kind of corrupted system. It kind of gave us an interesting take on Bourne: Bourne the patriot.

It’s certainly timely. I also wanted to delve into the writing process. In the past you’ve worked with people like Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and Scott Burns (Contagion) on these films, but here you actually wrote the film with Chris Rouse. How did that collaboration evolve?

Chris and I wrote on the two Bourne movies that I made, to be honest, we just didn’t bother to get credited. And you know, it wasn’t necessary; there were lots of other writers. This one, it started with us, so it wasn’t like a big step from our point of view. It was more of a continuation of how it had been before.

Jason Bourne production still Universal Studios

You have worked on five or six films together. How has that collaboration evolved over the years, and what kind of advantages come with your editor being involved with so many aspects of the process?

Well, Chris is a very brilliant man and a very great man, and there’s no one closer to me in terms of that collaboration. He’s a powerful authorial voice in any film that he’s involved in, as editors always are. Editors shape the story and shape the drama, and so the move towards writing [was natural because] they’re writing anyway — here he’s just doing it upfront as opposed to later in the process. To us it just felt the same as the process that we’d always engaged in.

This isn’t spoiling anything because it’s in the trailers, but there’s a huge car chase on the Vegas Strip in the film. Can you talk about the genesis of that idea, and how you put it together, logistically?

When you think of the Cold War there are various places where you imagine espionage. Espionage crossroads of the Cold War bring you to the backstreets of Berlin, or Vienna. The question we were asking ourselves was, in the 21st century, where intelligence is more and more dominated by cyber and the digital arena, where is the equivalent of the backstreets of Berlin? Where is the espionage entrepôt?

And I was reading a lot about CIA recruitment, NSA recruitment, and the truth is there are these huge conventions [in Las Vegas] which are essentially places where the best and the brightest mathematicians, and physicists, and big technology people come, and this is where the NSA and CIA recruit. They address these conventions, and they recruit in competition with the big finance houses, the Goldman-Sachs of the world, because they want those same people to do their automated trading algorithmic work. The big social media companies [are there], like Google and Facebook, and also the hacking underground, which are also recruiting in the same area. So you get this kind of modern espionage bazaar in Las Vegas. I asked Chris, this is a great place for Bourne to go, because it’s the 21st century intelligence bazaar — and also, we can have a great chase!

Then Simon Crane came in and did second unit [direction]. He’s a fantastic action specialist, and Gary Powell, our stunt coordinator, he’s also fantastically good. We all just got together and planned every move of it. [Producers] Frank [Marshall] and Greg Goodman went out to the Vegas authorities, and spent a phenomenal amount of time getting their cooperation, because the big question was, "Can we close the Strip for all that time? Can we really mount a chase of that size at night?"

The city was fantastically accommodating, I must say. I used to go down there at night, and as far as the eye could see, it was just the Strip with hundreds of vehicles.

That sequence was entirely practical?

Yeah, it was. It really, really was. Those were the vehicles. I think we trashed something like 160-odd vehicles.

Without getting into details, the movie sets up some dynamics between Jason Bourne and Alicia Vikander’s character that could certainly be explored in future movies. Are you interested in making more, or did this one get it out of your system for good?

Honestly and truly, I made the mistake after Ultimatum of saying "never again," so I’m not going to do that again. This was definitely something that I wanted to do, which was in an elegant way hand the franchise that I love and has been very good to me back to the studio in such a way that it was in really good repair, with places that it could go in the future, with new characters who could take it on. So that was part of what I wanted to do, and I wanted to do it elegantly and discretely. So it doesn’t matter whether I do it or not. What matters is that if audiences get to the end of this film and want more, and want to know what happens to those characters, that’s what’s going to dictate it. All I know for me is I’m going to have a long holiday, and then I’ll go off and do some other movies, and not think about Jason Bourne for a bit.