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The Untold Truth Of The Bourne Franchise

When people talk about gritty, realistic action movies of the 21st century that changed the entire genre, names like "The Dark Knight," "Casino Royale," "John Wick," and "Iron Man" get thrown around a lot. But it can be argued that the most influential action movie hero of the past two decades is Jason Bourne.

Starring Matt Damon as an amnesiac assassin, the first movie in the series was "The Bourne Identity," released in 2002. Made on a low budget, the film was a breakout success that charmed critics as well as general audiences. That film was followed up with three sequels and a spinoff, with all of the entries keeping to an in-your-face, handheld style of action that at one point became the industry standard for "gritty" filmmaking. 

Despite its importance to the genre, the Bourne franchise has seen a lot of ups and downs from the moment it was first conceived as a low-budget action film with a focus on realism and character rather than over-the-top stunts and fight scenes. Let's take a closer look at the secret history of the "Bourne" franchise to understand the journey its cast and crew have been on for two decades.    

Not quite based on the novel

If there is one thing Hollywood loves to bet on, it's an already proven thing. That is why the industry rushes to adapt books, comics, and video games that have already gained popularity among the masses. In keeping with that trend, "The Bourne Identity" is based on the iconic 1980 spy novel of the same name by Robert Ludlum.

In broad strokes, both the book and the movie follow a similar concept — a man wakes up after an injury to discover he has lost his long-term memory. On a quest to recover his identity, the man discovers he has the finely-honed skills of an assassin. He embarks on a cat-and-mouse game with a secret agency to discover the truth about his past and the events that led up to him losing his memory. While the movie sticks to this general plot from the book, all the finer details are revamped. 

Director Doug Liman approached screenwriter Tony Gilroy to help him adapt the novel for the big screen. Gilroy decided everything beyond the central premise would need to be changed and updated. He ended up liking the parts of the movie he had written, and disliking the bits that were a holdover from the novel. "Anything that's from the book is in the first five minutes," Gilroy told The New Yorker, "in which Bourne, inexplicably, has got microfilm in his a**. Why? I don't know! After that, when he steps off the boat, everything else [in the script] is mine."

There were many front runners for Bourne

Today, Jason Bourne has become one of the most iconic action heroes of all time. The character has also become inextricably linked with Matt Damon, who has portrayed Bourne in four movies so far. But such a juicy role was never going to be guaranteed the sole property of a single actor in a place as fickle as Hollywood, and many other big names were attached to the franchise at different points.  

The first actor to take on the role was actually Richard Chamberlain, who played Bourne in the 1988 television movie "The Bourne Identity." The movie failed to make much of an impact, and passed out of Hollywood's consciousness until filmmaker Doug Liman bought the rights to the original novel and set about making a new version of "The Bourne Identity." After the project started gaining traction, it received interest from many Hollywood A-listers. 

The most prominent name on the list was Brad Pitt, who was attached to play Bourne for a long time. Eventually, Pitt decided to drop "The Bourne Identity" in favor of making "Spy Game" around the same time (via The Guardian). Other big names were also considered. "I met with a wide range of people when casting for the film," Liman told BBC News. "People like Russell Crowe and even Sly Stallone at one point." But after discussing the project with Matt Damon, Liman knew he had found the perfect Jason Bourne. 

Matt Damon did not want to do a generic action film

Today, Matt Damon is known as an action star and a Hollywood A-lister, and much of the reason for both those tags is Damon's association with the "Jason Bourne" franchise. But back when the first movie in the series was being made, Damon seemed like an unlikely choice for such an action-packed role.

At the time, Damon was best known for starring in drama and thriller films like "Good Will Hunting" and "The Rainmaker." His attempts to branch out with "The Legend of Bagger Vance" had been met with poor reviews and an even poorer box office haul. Then there was the fact that the character of Jason Bourne in the novels was much older than Damon, who could still look like a youthful schoolboy under the right light.  

Damon did not want to do a mindless action film either. He was drawn to the project because he felt his filmmaking sensibilities matched with that of director Doug Liman. "[Liman and I] talked about 'La Femme Nikita' and these European movies, and then also those kind of paranoid thrillers from the '70s, so that's what we were going for," Damon told The AV Club in 2002. "That was the reason I did it."    

The most difficult stunt

Once Matt Damon committed to playing the part of an assassin, he had to do much more than flex his acting muscles for "The Bourne Identity." The actor had to also flex his actual muscles in the film's many action and chase sequences. The style of street-level filmmaking director Doug Liman employed meant that Damon had to join the ranks of actors who do their own stunts

A particularly hair-raising sequence occurs at a bank where Jason Bourne gets cornered by the police. In a bid to escape, Bourne has to climb down several stories of the bank building using only his hands and feet, centimeters away from losing his grip and plummeting to his death. If the scene is intense to watch, it was equally intense for the film crew to create the scene of Bourne climbing down the building.

To add to the realism of the scene, Damon personally filmed a major portion of the stunt instead of relying on a stunt double to do all of it. "The challenge of the sequence was to make it look completely natural for Bourne to climb down the sheer wall of this building like a mosquito," stunt and fight coordinator Nick Powell said in a promotional interview shared by Murph's Place. "Matt was extraordinary, and climbed down the last 30 feet of the building on his own."  

Nicky Parsons was brought back to life

While Jason Bourne is the face of "The Bourne Identity" and its resulting franchise, an unlikely staple has turned out to be Julia Stiles in the role of Nicky Parsons. The fresh-faced CIA operative first showed up in "The Bourne Identity" as one of the many minor characters keeping an eye on Bourne for the government. 

With each new movie in the series, Nicky's role became more pronounced as she became a point of contact between Bourne and the government, and the only person Bourne trusts within the CIA. This prominence meant that Nicky showed up in "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum," even though Nicky was supposed to be killed by Jason Bourne in the first movie itself. 

"I filmed a scene [in 'The Bourne Identity'] where Jason Bourne flips Nicky upside down against a wall and I break my neck," Stiles revealed during an interview with Collider. "So as far as I knew, that was it for Nicky Parsons." But the filmmakers decided to change Nicky's fate and let her live, at least for the time being. Nicky eventually met her end in 2016's "Jason Bourne," after having grown close to Bourne. This prompted Bourne to once again embark on a rampage against the secret government organization responsible for getting Nicky killed. 

The game too violent for Jason Bourne

Franchise filmmaking isn't just about making movies, but also expanding the brand into other mediums. After the success of the "Jason Bourne" movies, the studio naturally wanted to make an action-adventure video game to cash in on the brand recognition for the series.

In 2008, High Moon Studios was getting ready to launch "Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Conspiracy," a third-person action stealth video game that would put viewers in control of the amnesiac assassin as he races to uncover the truth about his past. According to a report by MTV (via Wired), Matt Damon was in negotiations to voice Bourne in the game, but pulled out at the last minute after taking issue with the graphic violence depicted onscreen.

But that doesn't mean Damon is not interested in making a Jason Bourne video game — he just wants it to be more than a generic action shooter game. "They offered me a bunch of money [to make the 'Bourne Conspiracy' game]," Damon revealed on Hot Ones (via NME). "But it was like, 'If you could make it more, I don't know, that a little more thought had to go into it, like Myst. I love that game!' So I was like, 'More like Myst.'" 

A falling out among the main team

While Matt Damon is the face of the "Jason Bourne" franchise, equal credit must be accorded to director Doug Liman, who fought to make the first movie in the series; Paul Greengrass, who took over as director with the second film, "The Bourne Supremacy"; and screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who wrote the first three "Bourne" movies.

But while the result of those collaborations was one of the best movie trilogies ever made, working together on the massive project was not all fun and games. After Liman left, Damon had to fight to keep Greengrass on as the director of the next two movies in the franchise. Damon's relationship with Gilroy, meanwhile, was far less amicable, to the extent that the actor publicly tore into the writer regarding the script for "The Bourne Ultimatum."

"It's just that [Gilroy's script] was unreadable," Damon told Empire magazine (via IndieWire). "This is a career-ender. I mean, I could put [the script] up on eBay and it would be game over for that dude. It's terrible. It's really embarrassing." Soon after his very public statements, Damon issued an apology to Gilroy, declaring that it was unprofessional of him to publicly comment on their personal differences (per NBC Chicago).

A producer saved the franchise

There were very little expectations from Doug Liman's adaptation of Robert Ludlum's "The Bourne Identity" book when it was first being made. The novel had already been adapted into a middling TV movie once, and the general idea in Hollywood was the novel did not have the elements to make for a compelling big-scale action flick. 

That suited Liman and Damon just fine, since they did not intend to make a generic action movie. But the fact remained that "The Bourne Identity" needed some decent action sequences, for which the studio was unwilling to cough up extra money. That was where producer Frank Marshall stepped in, and according to Damon, saved the movie and the resulting franchise. According to the actor, the studio wanted to release "The Bourne Identity" without a crucial action sequence that had been added to the third act in rewrites. 

"Frank laid out this surgical plan for what he wanted to do and got us $3 million for a reshoot," Damon told Variety. "Had it not been for Frank, we never would have had a franchise. It would have been just one and done." That extra money ended up going into filming important scenes that made the low-budget actioner into a movie with style and story beats that have been copied by many other action films over the past two decades.   

Not a James Bond knockoff

Until the release of 2002's "The Bourne Identity," the numero uno cinematic spy figure was James Bond. The British spy with a license to kill had been at the forefront of the espionage franchise wave for decades. After the success of "The Bourne Identity," the titular character of the movie played by Matt Damon was often compared to Bond.

But it was not a comparison that Damon looked favorably upon. For the actor, Bourne was a far more complex and human figure than James Bond. While both characters kill frequently, Bourne feels remorse for his violent ways, while Bond rarely bothers to examine the red stains on his ledger. "[Bond is] an imperialist and he's a misogynist," Damon told Associated Press (via Today). "He kills people and laughs and sips martinis and wisecracks about it."  

On the other hand, the actor described Bourne as "the opposite of James Bond" in that he works against the government and is a "serial monogamist" who is still in love with the memory of his dead girlfriend. At the end of the day, whether you prefer Bond or Bourne, the influence of "The Bourne Identity" and its sequels on the modern direction of the "James Bond" franchise cannot be denied.  

Making Bourne multi-lingual

While Matt Damon's version of Jason Bourne is depicted as a lean, mean killing machine, he is so much more than that. Despite being hunted by world governments on a regular basis, Bourne uses his wits and his extensive training as an assassin to stay several steps ahead of the opposition at every turn.

One non-violent way that Bourne does so is through his mastery of a wide variety of languages. Throughout the movies, we see Bourne speaking fluent Swiss, German, French, and Russian at different points. What's even more impressive is that Bourne talks like a native speaker, with no hint of his American accent to tip off his enemies. Turns out this effect was achieved with the help of a little bit of creative editing. 

"That's kind of like a parlor trick," Damon admitted in an interview with Associated Press (via Today). "When we're filming I just learn [the lines] phonetically and move my mouth in the right way." When it was time to dub the lines in post-production, the actor would work with a native speaker in the recording booth and say his lines again and again until the speaker deemed Damon's pronunciations accurate. 

Matt Damon knocked out a fellow actor

On the surface, the "Jason Bourne" movies might appear much the same as any other action franchise where a rogue hero battles innumerable enemies and always emerges the victor. But what makes the world of Bourne so different and compelling is that the action is presented at close range with a raw and gritty intensity, without any fancy flourishes.

To achieve this effect, the action scenes in the "Jason Bourne" series were carefully choreographed to be as close range as possible, and using the real actors instead of stuntmen as far as the studio would allow it. While this approach gave audiences some breathtakingly intense action sequences, they also resulted in one of the actors getting knocked out by Matt Damon for real. In "The Bourne Supremacy," Damon as Bourne gets into a physical brawl with CIA officer John Nevins, played by Tim Griffin. 

On the film's DVD commentary, director Paul Greengrass revealed that the fight scene became so intense that one stray punch from Damon landed squarely against Griffin's face and knocked him out cold. According to Greengrass, while he was worried for Griffin's health, the actor's first question after regaining his senses was to ask whether the all-too-realistic moment had been properly caught on camera. 

Jeremy Renner faced a different challenge as the next Bourne

For the longest time, it seemed that "The Bourne Identity" would remain a trilogy, telling a complete story with no need for any further installments. But the studio saw the potential for a new action franchise, and so they decided to make yet another Bourne movie starting a fresh adventure.

The problem was that director Paul Greengrass was not interested in returning to the world of Bourne, and Matt Damon would only commit if Greengrass was involved. Undeterred, the studio set about making "The Bourne Legacy," starring Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, a secret agent character similar to Bourne who operates in the same universe and is waging his own secret battle against a clandestine government organization.

Renner was no stranger to the action genre, having already played notable roles in franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and "Mission: Impossible." So the actor was prepared for the brutal action scenes taking a toll on his health. But it was the stunt that involved jumping into a frozen lake for real that Renner found the hardest to pull off. "The water? Below 32 degrees?" the actor recalled to Britain's Glamour magazine (via Contactmusic.com). "There was nothing I could do to prepare for that. And it freaked me out. Let's just say it wasn't very pleasant.”

Can we expect Jason Bourne to meet Aaron Cross?

Fans were surprised, and in some sections outraged, when it was announced that a new "Jason Bourne" movie would be made without Matt Damon. But it soon transpired that "The Bourne Legacy" was not replacing Damon as Bourne, but adding in a fresh secret agent character Aaron Cross, played by Jeremy Renner, who faces many of the same challenges that Bourne did. 

In the years since the release of "The Bourne Legacy," it has come to be viewed more kindly by fans of the franchise — so much so that many want to see a movie crossover between Bourne and Cross. And Jeremy Renner is all for the idea. "I love that world," the actor told ScreenRant. "If they want to do [a crossover], I'm in. there's no 'no' coming from this direction." 

For his part, Matt Damon also welcomed the idea of Jason Bourne and Aaron Cross teaming up to save the world, even if the personalities of the two individual characters do not make for a strong "friendship," vibe according to the actor. "I can't see how to make the characters cross over because they're both lone wolves," Damon explained to Digital Spy. "But if they could find a way then I'd be all for it."

Bourne's only shirtless scene

Right from the start, one thing the makers of "The Bourne Identity" were sure of was that they did not want to make a by-the-numbers action flick. That meant no big, flashy action scenes, no scantily-clad love interests, and no gratuitous shots of the lead character without his shirt on, bulging biceps rippling under the sun. 

But after avoiding that last bit for the first three movies, fans finally got to see Matt Damon as Jason Bourne with his shirt off at the start of 2016's "Jason Bourne." The scene involves Bourne engaging in a bare-knuckle fight against a burly opponent, and you can clearly see that despite being older and more grizzled, Bourne is in better shape than ever and ready to kick ass. Which is exactly the effect the film's makers wanted to achieve through the scene.

"For this [movie], [director] Paul [Greengrass] said that if the movie starts and it looks like I've been living well, we don't have a movie," Damon explained to USA Today. "But if the first image looks like I've suffered, it's a statement of intent to our audience — that we're coming with everything we have." And so the shirtless scene became a statement on a new era of "Jason Bourne" movies featuring an older but still very dangerous version of Damon's Bourne.