LOS ANGELES — 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 today, “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.
“It’s one of our most lucrative franchises,” said Donna Langley, Universal’s co-chairwoman, 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 included 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-crosses 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.”
If the CIA had its secret Treadstone program in the “Bourne” movies, what if the Department of Defense had another, equally clandestine scheme called Outcome? In the mind of Gilroy, who co-wrote the script with his brother Dan, the U.S. government was using drugs to alter the chemistry of soldiers, including Renner’s Aaron Cross, to improve their muscle efficiency, neural regeneration and pain suppression. When the government decides to wipe out the program, Cross recruits a research scientist (Rachel Weisz) to outfox the secret agency headed by Eric Boyer (Edward Norton Jr.) that runs the Department of Defense experiment.
The way Universal and Captivate saw it, the Cross scheme could set in motion a fresh narrative without slamming the door on the old one.
“What was exciting to me about it is that it kept everything intact in terms of the universe and Jason Bourne and created a trajectory for a new character and potentially a new franchise,” Smith said.