The Battle to Make The Bourne Identity

The Bourne Identity was the spy thriller that revitalized the genre. But the production was far from an easy one...

Like so many budding filmmakers of his generation, Doug Liman got his start in movies by fiddling with his father’s Super 8 camera. Then aged eight, Liman “Picked it up, started making movies with it, and never stopped.”

By the time he’d reached his early 30s, Liman’s ambitions had finally paid off. His films Swingers and Go, released in 1996 and 1999, were made cheaply and recouped healthy profits. Urgent and effervescently told, they were the product of a young, talented filmmaker on the rise. Liman’s rising profile soon saw him land the kind of deal that a few dozen other hopefuls would have sold their souls for – Universal signed him up to make a film based on Robert Ludlum’s spy thriller, The Bourne Identity.

There were hints, even on the set of Go, however, that The Bourne Identity wasn’t going to be the easiest of shoots. Actress Sarah Polley, who’s still a close friend of Liman, once described the director as “This complete mess who can barely keep track of his possessions.” And suddenly, at the start of the 2000s, Liman found himself responsible for making a $55 million summer movie.

Universal chairman Stacey Snider said that she wanted to be daring by hiring Liman. “I was intrigued by the pairing of an independent-minded filmmaker with a familiar studio genre,” Snider told The Wall Street Journal in 2002. “Look, I’m a moviegoer and I’m bored. I’m getting tired of movies that all look the same.”

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Sure enough, the making of The Bourne Identity would prove to be a wild ride from beginning to end.

The Plane Flight

Liman’s interest in the Bourne novels reached back to his teenage years, but it wasn’t until the success of Swingers and Go that he finally got the chance to bring the thrillers to the screen. Warner Bros had originally made The Bourne Identity for television in 1988, with Richard Chamberlain playing a somewhat haggard Bourne. As a result, it took about two years for Liman to gain the film writes to Ludlum’s books – in the meantime, the filmmaker flew out to the author’s home in Montana to talk about the project. But even this act of bridge-building created an unexpected drama.

“I had just become a pilot,” Liman told Entertainment Weekly, “and it was my first solo flight.”

Liman had failed to accurately work out how long it would take to reach his destination, so that by the time Liman reached Montana, the National Guard – fearing that something terrible had happened – had been dispatched to try to find him (“I didn’t understand I had to slow down to cross the Tetons,” Liman later explained).

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When Liman finally touched down near Ludlum’s home in Glacier National Park, however, Ludlum was so impressed by the director’s entrance that the two became friends, and the writer was eventually brought on board as a producer. It was an early victory, only slightly marred by Liman almost running out of fuel during his flight home.

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The Script

When it came to developing the script, Liman turned to screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who’d written the scripts for such films as The Devil’s Advocate, Michael Bay’s Armageddon and Taylor Hackford thriller Proof Of Life. According to The New Yorker, Liman and Gilroy got together at a Tribeca coffee shop to discuss the project, where Gilroy described The Bourne Identity as an “absolute piece of shit.”

“It was, a huge, you know, fifteen gunmen on the Metro blowing the fuck out of everything kind of movie,” Gilroy later said. When Liman pressed Gilroy for ideas, the writer replied that they should keep the central premise – that of a secret agent with a serious case of amnesia – and throw pretty much everything else away.

“I guess your movie,” Gilroy told Liman, “should be about a guy who finds the only thing he knows how to do is kill people.”

Watch The Bourne Identity on Amazon

Liman was on board with this idea, but the pair continued to clash throughout the production. Gilroy became irked when Liman, who he said “didn’t have any sense with story” and changed elements of his script. Liman hit back that Gilroy was “arrogant” and later had the script rewritten by William Blake Herron – a decision which, as we’ll soon see, brought headaches of its own.

The Star

If Universal knew it was taking a chance on a Doug Liman, actor Matt Damon also knew that a lot was riding on The Bourne Identity. After breaking through with the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the dramas All The Pretty Horses and The Legend Of Bagger Vance had failed to make much impact. Damon urgently needed a hit.

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Before Damon, a number of other actors had been considered for Bourne, including Russell Crowe and Brad Pitt. The latter opted to make the thematically similar Spy Game instead. Besides, Liman saw in Damon the opportunity to create a different kind of action hero – one younger, more conflicted and more apt to strategize than the likes of James Bond.

“He’ll figure out the simplest, least energetic, most efficient way to get something done,” Liman explained to the BBC. “For example, when the cops surround his car, he’s going to calmly pull out a map, browse through it and figure out a route before he starts driving.”

This placed Bourne in stark contrast to Liman who had – and still has – a self-confessed tendency to ‘find’ his films as he’s shooting. It’s the kind of creative approach which worked perfectly well on something as low-budget as Swingers; on a movie where the production’s running up hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, it’s wont to cause tension.

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Before filming on The Bourne Identity began, Universal’s bosses didn’t necessarily know about the approach Liman would employ; the term ‘Limania’, which the director’s collaborators would later use when describing his shooting style, hadn’t yet been coined.

“Every time I had to make a decision, my inclination was against making a traditional action movie,” Liman said in 2008. “I wanted to make an art film the studio could sell as an action movie with trailer moments to trick the audience. They had no idea what to make of this.”

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The Shoot

The problems began almost as soon as filming started. Liman had already rubbed Universal up the wrong way by insisting that he shoot in Paris rather than choose a cheaper city like Montreal as a substitute. “I was like, ‘What are they talking about? Because they speak French in Montreal, it’s going to look like Paris? Like, nothing looks like Paris,'” Liman reasoned.

Liman had, however, relented when Universal asked to have more action beats written into the script. Unfortunately, Matt Damon hated it, with reports even circulating that Damon was threatening to leave the movie altogether if it didn’t revert back to the version originally written by Tony Gilroy.

“…when I went to France I got this script that was unrecognizable from Tony’s script and unrecognizable in a way I was really uncomfortable with,” Damon told Movie Habit. “It became the exact kind of movie I would pass on, that I don’t want to do and that I avoided doing because there was the perfect number of explosions and everything. And not to knock this writer — because I think he did everything that those writers are supposed to do when they write one of those scripts — it was just totally different from the movie Doug and I wanted to make.” 

Liman agreed, but reverting back to an earlier draft at such a late stage in the production wasn’t without consequence; essentially, months of planning and scheduling had to be reworked.

Bourne was overly chaotic,” said the film’s editor Saar Klein. “We went into production with a script that was just a mess.”

As Liman fought to keep filming on schedule, with filming due to take place in Greece, Switzerland and Italy as well as France, Tony Gilroy was faxing over revised pages from the script. Then, to make matters worse, the original producer, Richard Gladstein, left the shoot due to complications with his wife’s pregnancy. Suddenly, The Bourne Identity was at sea without anyone experienced at the helm.

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Seasoned producer Frank Marshall was flown to France as Gladstein’s replacement, but even he couldn’t prevent the movie from falling behind schedule. As Liman fought to make Bourne his way, tempers between director and studio soon soured. Part of the problem was that Liman was pushing to keep certain scenes from an earlier draft of the script in the movie, including one major sequence at a rural farmhouse. In this instance, Liman managed to get Marshall to talk Universal into providing extra money and time to work the scene in to the movie.

In other instances, Universal were simply irked by Liman’s aloofness and alleged disorganisation. According to Frank Marshall, Liman even paid the crew to stay late and play paintball.

“There were 15 or 20 people working in golden time so Doug could play paintball in the forest,” Marshall later told the LA Times.

Matters came to a head when, during the farmhouse shoot mentioned above, Liman woke up one morning and realized he’d forgotten to get an important shot. When he told Frank Marshall, the producer loudly told Liman – in front of the rest of the cast and crew – that he didn’t know what he wanted.

“That was the huge epic screaming fight,” Liman recalled, “the biggest fight on the set ever.”

Marshall called Snider at Universal and told her about Liman’s desire to get the additional shot. The reply came that Liman wasn’t allowed to do it again – but Liman, being a rebellious sort, picked up a camera and caught the shot he wanted anyway.

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As The Bourne Identity‘s release date was pushed back from September 2001 to February 2002, Matt Damon wound up being a mediator between director and studio. “I would be his surrogate because at least I could be heard,” Damon said.

“Universal hated me,” Liman said. “I had an arch-enemy at the studio. They were trying to shut me down.”

Reports went around that Liman had effectively been replaced by Marshall towards the end of the shoot; there’s even a story that Liman was considering the possibility of selling his director’s credit on eBay.

“I stepped into territory I’ve never been in before in 30 years,” Frank Marshall, told the LA Times. “I’ve always had a respect for the line between a producer and a director. And I had to step over that line into something that I feel is the director’s responsibility.”

The Reshoot

Through all the creative friction, Liman and producer Frank Marshall got a rough cut of The Bourne Identity together by the end of 2001. But again, there was a problem; Universal had shown the cut to a test audience, and concluded that the movie needed a bigger action sequence towards the end.

Liman, who’d long pushed for a more character-driven, less gratuitously violent thriller, initially balked at the idea – it was, he said, his “biggest point of paranoia.” Later, he’d describe to Rolling Stone the kinds of suggestions he’d got during Bourne’s production: “Why is Jason Bourne not fighting 200 assassins at the end?”

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Eventually, Gilroy and Liman came up with a new action sequence that fit the tone of the film – the dramatic stairwell sequence, where Bourne rides a corpse like a fleshy elevator.

The Bourne Identitys production woes came with a cost – both financially and in terms of public perception. The budget had gone over by about $8 million, while the release had been pushed back again from February to May 2002 because of the reshoots. As stories began to emerge of the film’s difficulties, word also got round that the film would be a commercial failure.

“The word on Bourne was that it was supposed to be a turkey,” Damon told GQ in 2012. “It’s very rare that a movie comes out a year late, has four rounds of reshoots, and it’s good.”

The Aftermath

Ultimately, and in his own personal way, Doug Liman delivered the spy thriller he said he would. The Bourne Identity had the urgent edge of an indie movie, while Jason Bourne himself was a more human action hero – one more likely to fall back on instinct and cunning than gadgets or brute strength.

Critics praised the film, and its box office returns were such that Universal suddenly had the first shoots of a franchise on its hands. But for Liman, the success had come at a considerable cost; while Tony Gilroy would return to write the rest of the Bourne trilogy, director Paul Greengrass was hired as Liman’s replacement. Liman, who’d spent years acquiring the rights to Bourne, developing it and then battling to get it filmed, was ousted by a disgruntled studio.

“I lost my baby,” Liman told New York Magazine.

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If Liman needed to console himself over Bourne at all, he could at least take a look at the impact his movie had on the action genre. It’s arguable that Casino Royale was inspired by its back-to-basics approach, and its intense, close-quarters combat brought an end to the wire-fu fight scenes that had permeated Hollywood since The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Liman certainly wasn’t chastened by his experience on The Bourne Identity, or at any rate doesn’t appear to have changed his filmmaking approach. On Mr. And Mrs. Smith, Liman had screenwriter Simon Kinberg write “40 or 50 different endings” before finally choosing the one Kinberg came up with in his original draft. On Edge Of Tomorrow, Liman’s tendency to discuss shots and throw around ideas on set led a two-week shoot for a beach scene drag on for an exhausting three months.

Despite all this, many of those who’ve worked with Liman find praise for his methods. Tom Cruise is collaborating with him again for the drama-thriller, Mena, due out in 2017. Even Akiva Goldsman, the producer of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, who once called Liman a “madman” also has an affection for the director’s oddball approach. “Doug is a self- and semi-managed tornado,” Goldsman said in 2008. “It’s chaos, but it’s effective chaos.”