In case you haven’t noticed, The Bourne Ultimatum – quite possibly the best movie of the summer, and a film that would drive lesser critics to dust off the old ‘rollercoaster ride’ cliché – opens in cinemas today. It’s utterly brilliant. Go see it. We have – but we didn’t stop there. We also sat down a few months ago on set with the movie’s director, British director (and all-round smartest guy in movies) Paul Greengrass and Jason Bourne himself, Matt Damon, to talk about answers, ultimatums and going home.
RT-UK: First things first. Why did you come back for a threequel?
Paul Greengrass: Well, I love the franchise. I love the character and I believe in the character and I believe in the franchise, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. What I love about the character and the franchise is that it’s oppositional. It’s the only franchise that really does that. Most of these movies, most franchise movies, are about ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, that sort of thing. That’s kind of the underlying theme. And what’s wonderful about Bourne, I think, is that at roots it’s a 70s oppositional story. It has its roots in all those great conspiracy thrillers of the 60s and 70s. And there’s just such an underlying feeling of it, which is that Jason Bourne is one of us and he’s running away from ‘Them’ and he’s trying to get the answers, and he doesn’t trust them and they’re all bad and the system’s corrupt and they’re all up to something. I like that. I wouldn’t want at all to convey frivolity about it. For me, personally, that’s where I come from. I wouldn’t have done Supremacy if I didn’t love the character and love the franchise. It’s the only one of those kinds of movies that I’ve made and the reason was because I really love it. I really do. I think it’s great, I think it’s got real power to connect with people on that level. I think it’s important that that oppositional idea is out there, particularly in a mainstream movie, and to do that and to convey it with a sense of excitement and in a very contemporary landscape, it’s just great, great fun.
RT-UK: Does he find his answers this time?
PG: He does find his answers. This film is all about answers. I think the first two movies were all about questions and this is about answers.
RT-UK: At the end of the last film, he’d found peace in a strange way. Was it difficult coming up with a challenge for him that didn’t invoke a sense of déjà vu? Yet again people are after him, yet again there’s a car chase…
PG: I think it was very clear to everybody that another Bourne film where he ran and he was chased and he never got any answers was never going to work. That’s the most fundamental thing about it. One of the things about Bourne again that’s really interesting as a franchise is that they’re not missions. If you take Mission Impossible, or Bond, it’s a series of missions per episode and you can go on forever. The interesting thing about Bourne is that there’s a quest there, a bit like The Fugitive. You can go on forever, but you have to develop a sense of quest, so that one film begets the next and begets the next. They’re always connected, whereas with a Bond or a Mission Impossible, they’re not. They’re just freestanding episodes. I think again that’s one of the things I love about it.
What I mean about that is that it gives you certain difficulties and certain opportunities. The difficulties are that you have to start again and remind people what the story is and where they are and secondly you’ve got to get somewhere. But along the way you can have all the fun and adventure and all that stuff. So balancing those elements actually is a lot of work. You’ve gotta make enough progress so that you’re satisfied but you can’t go along so many highways and byways that you lose the whole thing in the first place.
RT-UK: What is the significance of the locations you’ve chosen?
PG: Well, I wanted a very contemporary landscape and I liked the idea of uniting London, Madrid and New York. There are bits in Moscow and a big piece in Tangier, but one of the interesting things is that all Bourne films are not only quests, they’re also journeys. That’s also very important, so to get an interesting journey is sort of where you start, really. That’s actually one of the first things you try to get. What would be a really interesting journey in terms of atmospheres and textures and all of that? London is a great European city and we’ve done Paris and we’ve done Berlin, so we felt it would be quite nice to come here and then from here, go south to Madrid and then end up in New York.
One other thing is that hot and cold play an important part. Essentially, these movies take place in a cold landscape. Paris in the first movie was very cold, and really it was a rainy, cold pallet and you had the small bit of warmth in Greece at the end. With Supremacy, you had the warmth at the beginning with Goa, and then you went to Berlin and Moscow. So what I’ve tried to do in this one is start it cold, then go to Tangier in the middle and then go to New York, so you’ve got the warmth in the middle this time.
RT-UK: Is there a political content to this movie?
PG: People just love those movies and they can’t wait to see what you’re going to do next. So somewhere along the way you have to put it in a contemporary landscape but not a topical one. It’s got to work as entertainment. It would be a big mistake to confuse Syriana with Bourne Ultimatum, or United 93 with Bourne Ultimatum. They’re different sorts of films. You’ve got to give people pleasure. People have expectations of what a Bourne movie is – it’s got to have action and adventure.
RT-UK: And, of course, Matt Damon playing Bourne in a very particular way. Bourne doesn’t speak much.
PG: Matt and I have had a few discussions about that. For a Bourne movie to work, it’s got to connect with the inchoate fears, the paranoia, the fear, ohmigod they’re chasing me, where are they? All that stuff. And somewhere it’s quite a hard challenge for an actor because you don’t have many lines to go with. They’re not talky films, these. There’s barely a wasted word. But when you shoot them, it’s a weird challenge to create a scene when there are no words to hang the performance on it.
PG: Julia has a big part of this movie. Bourne was alone in the second movie and it’s gonna be difficult to keep him alone. It’s another early call. What do you do with Bourne in the third film? I think essentially Bourne is a character who always does walk alone, so you don’t want to pair him up with anybody. That would be a big mistake but I think that that scene that he and Julia had in the second movie is a really interesting scene and you believe that there’s some untold story there that will be told in this movie.
RT-UK: Have you been listening to the fans on the internet?
PG: What did they say? I haven’t.
RT-UK: They are saying no to a love interest and wondering who the villains are and if Franka Potente will come back!
PG: I’m pretty sure Franka’s not going to appear. I think she’s definitely not going to reappear. (laughs) I don’t think Bourne does love interests, really. He loves marie, doesn’t he? And I think that’s another interesting thing about him – there’s a certain level of emotional reality. I think it would be wrong if he transferred his affections in a simple way. I think you can complicate his emotions but I don’t think you can transfer them.
RT-UK: It seems like a ready-made trilogy that maybe isn’t designed to go for a fourth movie. If so, would Matt come back? Would it be recast?
PG: Well, it’s become our running joke of the thing. When exactly one or other of us is going to call the other and say “I went to the casino and I lost all my money! We have to find a fourth Bourne! We have to do it! You’ve gotta do it for me, man!” (laughs) Of course there’s going to be another one. I’m being serious now. I think there’s a natural trilogy and you have to tell the story as a trilogy. And I think it’s imperative that the ideas of the franchise continue. Absolutely imperative for me. And I’m sure Universal will feel the same way, but what I’m saying is it’s not one of those things where I, for different reasons, feel that it’s really important to keep it going. Now, does that mean Matt plays on? Who knows? But for me as the director, I would want to end this trilogy in a way that the values of Jason Bourne continue, are still alive, the little flame of conscience that he represents in this dark world remains alight. What does that mean in terms of his character? Who knows? But I’m perfectly certain that I do not want to end this movie in either one of two ways. One: that the torch is extinguished, because then what would be the point of following this character all that way through three movies, for no purpose? Equally, it of course would be absurd to think that Jason Bourne can solve all the problems of the world, because then it becomes a comic book, then it becomes Superman or what a superhero might be. And he’s not. I think much the most interesting territory is the territory that we’re in which is, if you’re oppositional and you’re part of the underground, you’re part of the resistance in a bad world, then your ideas and your identity can spread.
RT-UK: Thought you said it wasn’t political.
PG: No, it’s not a political film. It’s not a political film in any form. It’s not. What I’m saying is that any film, if it’s a franchise movie, has to work out the underlying logic of the drama and the world that it’s set in. Bourne is the drama of an outsider on the world. The profound difference between Bourne and Bond is…well, they’re both characters, they’re both Cold War literary constructs. They both have the same initials, they’re both secret agents but that’s where it stops. Because from then on they’re completely different. Because Bond is an insider who likes being a secret agent, who likes the system, who glamourises it all. It’s all about imperialistic, misogynistic values in my view, speaking as a Brit, going down the casino, drinking a Campari and soda, ogling all the girls in the bikinis and killing a lot of people. And he’s got a lot of technological wizardry and that’s it.
You look at Jason Bourne and there’s a whole different set of values that underpin that character. He is outside the system. He’s not anti-Bond. He’s anti-‘the system’. It’s a totally different thing. He’s on the run and his perception is that the entire system of secret agents, power, all that stuff is a desperately corrupt system and he’s on the run from it, trying to stop them killing him and trying to find some answers. And he rejects killing. He rejects all that, his entire value system is, in my view, positive. Could you imagine Jason Bourne looking at a woman in a bikini? His drive is profound and the only thing that’s interesting about Bond is when he’s amoral. I believe in those values and that’s why I make the Bourne films in the first place, because I want those values to triumph, of course. But they’re never going to, but I certainly don’t want them to lose.