Hasitha Fernando looks at The Bourne Identity’s chaotic journey to the screen on its 21st anniversary…
Filmmaking is an intricate, interwoven and well-thought-out process, especially when it comes to large-scale productions with millions of dollars at stake. In the present day and age, nearly all mega budget movies have extensive storyboarding to avoid logistical shortcomings, anticipate potential problems and minimize budgetary wastage. But none of the above is applicable if you are working with director Doug Liman, no sir.
Prior to helming the behind-the-scenes drama ridden Hollywood tentpole The Bourne Identity, Liman’s work was predominantly confined to modestly budgeted, critically acclaimed indie-flicks like 1996’s Swingers and 1999’s Go. And his approach even when directing these economical affairs were a strangely chaotic and unusually unorthodox one, sothe gifted auteur had already established himself as something of a maverick, even before his career has even started to take off.
Liman first got his hands on the 1980 spy fiction thriller The Bourne Identity in his teenage years. Hailed as one of the greatest spy stories of all time, the international bestseller served as the basis for the 1988 television movie of the same name headlined by a world-weary Richard Chamberlain. The movie however, didn’t create the splash that Warner Bros. wanted, so further plans for adapting Ludlum’s efforts were all shelved indefinitely. Close to a decade later, near the end of production of Swingers, Liman decided it was time to take another crack at the property. After wrangling with Warner Bros. for more than two years, he was finally able to secure the rights to the book.
Without forging on ahead though, the intrepid filmmaker next decided that he should seek Ludlum’s blessing before proceeding, so he set his mind to pay the author a visit and did so by pulling off one heck of a crazy plane flying stunt. “I had just become a pilot, with a license but five weeks old. And I’m flying at 12, 500 feet above the Teton mountains, rather ‘in’ the mountains. The clouds are closing in on me and I’m not trained to fly in them. As I was approaching Kalispell airport there was a break in the clouds. I saw the runway and divebombed it! The arrival was dramatic enough for Ludlum, who was waiting on the tarmac, to nickname me “Hollywood” even though I live in New York,” recollected Liman during an interview with Entertainment Weekly. Impressed by Liman’s ballsy entrance the duo struck a close friendship, with the writer even being brought on board as a producer for the film.
After many years spent pursuing the rights for The Bourne Identity, Liman then had another formidable challenge ahead of him – how was he going to adapt the property? To accomplish his desired goal Liman approached screenwriter Tony Gilroy who had previously penned The Devil’s Advocate and Proof of Life. Little did Gilroy know that not only would he go on to co-write three more Bourne films, but also direct one of them later on. But at that point in time Gilroy was anything but confident about the project and the source material he had. The writer suggested that they keep the central premise of an amnesiac CIA agent on the run and dropping everything else. The primary focus would be on Bourne, whom Gilroy describes as “a guy who finds the only thing he knows how to do, is to kill people.”
Liman also found some unexpected inspiration from his late father’s memoirs, regarding his involvement in the investigation of the high-profile Iran-Contra affair, and incorporated those elements into the story. Liman and Gilroy were also of the opinion that they needed to modernize the setting of the story, so they shifted the narrative from a Cold War paranoia ridden 80s era to a more modern post 9/11-esque era. A risky move but one which proved to be a smart one. Although many great ideas were birthed through this partnership Gilroy and Liman weren’t always on good speaking terms through production, constantly disagreeing and not seeing eye to eye. The situation got so bad that at one point a new writer was even hired to retool the script, but more on that later.
After his breakout role in Gus Van Sant’s Oscar winning 1997 drama Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon was in dire need of a hit. Neither All The Pretty Horses nor The Legend of Bagger Vance generated the impact he was looking for. Before Damon was even considered Liman approached a wide range of actors for the titular role including Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise and even Sylvesrer Stallone. But there was always something that made Damon stand out from the others as Liman pointed out during one of his interviews with the BBC, “When I sat down with Matt and explained that I wanted to take on an action movie but do it in a different way, I got the sense that he understood. He was coming from the same place I was coming from and I felt we could become partners on this.”
In addition to crafting the nuanced, multi-layered performance needed for Jason Bourne’s character Damon had the tough task of getting into the peak of his physical prowess. But being the dedicated professional that he is, Damon took on the challenge and underwent three whole months of rigorous physical conditioning, weapons training and learning the Filipino martial art known as Kali. “Kali really inspired us. It is ridiculously efficient. You don’t break a sweat or expend any energy; you use your opponent’s energy against him. And we thought – that’s Jason Bourne, that’s how he’ll do everything in this movie. He’ll figure out the simplest, least energetic, most efficient way to get something done,” elaborated Liman when asked why they chose that particular martial arts style.
From the get go a rift was developing between Liman and the studio. Executives over at Universal Pictures weren’t too happy with Liman’s direction, the film’s pacing and overall lack of action. And Liman was suspicious that the studio would derail the production and have him replaced. Long story short, they were at constant loggerheads with one another. Due to the pressure brought on by the studio Liman finally agreed to add more action beats to the script, and this was where William Blake Herron came in. At Universal’s request Herron beefed up the story with action, explosions and the whole derivative Hollywood shebang. The end product, however, did not appeal to the movie’s star Matt Damon and he expressed his intense displeasure regarding the changes to the script. Liman reluctantly agreed and production was overhauled in the last minute. The previous screenwriter Tony Gilroy, meanwhile, was tasked with the damning job of rewriting his earlier script and faxing them to Liman on the fly.
Production was further hampered with the departure of the original producer Richard Gladstein and the arrival of his replacement Frank Marshall. A veteran producer who has worked on such franchises like Indiana Jones and Back to the Future, Marshall wasn’t a fan of Liman or his methods. Further creative differences and production delays resulted in the movie’s released being pushed from September 2001 to February 2002. Amidst the madness ensuing, Liman was finally able to assemble a rough cut by the end of 2001 to show the studio. Once again, a complication arose – test audiences who’d seen the cut said it needed another action set piece towards the end. After much drama and heated exchanges between the studio and Liman, all involved reached a compromise. With Gilroy’s input they formulated the gritty, stairwell fight sequence which fit in perfectly with the overall tone of the film and everyone was happy. The multiple reshoots came at a cost though; the budget ballooned by a further $8 million and the flick’s release was delayed to June 2002.
Pretty much all involved had serious doubts about their effort and how The Bourne Identity would perform at the box office. Even its main star was dubious of what they had created, “The word on Bourne was it was supposed to be a turkey. It’s very rare that a movie comes out a year late, has four rounds of reshoots, and ends up good,” Damon told GQ. When The Bourne Identity finally hit theatres on June 14th, 2002 all naysayers were silenced and there was unanimous praise across the board for the movie. It even performed fairly well at the box office, raking in $214 million worldwide. But not all walked away happy from the arduous journey that brought Ludlum’s book successfully to the big screen. Liman lost the rights to the books that he fought hard to secure, and was unceremoniously given the boot and replaced by director Paul Greengrass for subsequent instalments. Still, one cannot help but admire the final product that Liman, Gilroy, Damon and the crew had crafted with The Bourne Identity – a gem of a modern spy thriller that was certainly ahead of its time and still holds up now as it turns 21.
What are your thoughts on The Bourne Identity? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.