It’s hard to imagine now
But at the time of the first movie, The Bourne Identity, back in 2002, Damon, as he himself admits, wasn’t exactly flavour of the month in Hollywood. “Basically what you are saying is that it saved my ass and that’s completely true,” he laughs. “The weekend that it opened I was doing a play in the West End (of London) and I hadn’t had a film offer in six months because I’d had a couple of movies tank.
“And the word was that the first Bourne movie was going to tank, because it had been delayed so long and it had so many rounds of re-shooting, and it just had all the hallmarks of a turkey.”
How wrong the rumor mongers and cynics were. The Bourne Identity, directed by Doug Liman, was released to glowing reviews and huge box office as a worldwide audience flocked to see an intelligent thriller virtually re-inventing the action spy genre with ground breaking filming techniques and a gripping story.
“So I went from the Friday night of my final weekend of doing this play to the Monday morning when I returned to New York and I had something like 20 or 30 movie offers, just based on the opening weekend of the Bourne Identity. So it’s pretty easy to understand why these movies have been a great boon for me.”
It’s also fair to point out that he has made the character his own and left nothing to chance in preparing for the role. Before the first film started, Damon cleared his schedule and spent six months researching and preparing to play Jason Bourne.
“Doug had this idea of casting me and at the time nobody had put me in a movie anything like this, and my big fear and his big fear, was that people weren’t going to accept me as the character.
“And so we decided that the best way to overcome that was that if I just over trained like crazy for all of these things – for the fighting and the firearms – so that I could actually do them.
“Because audiences are smart enough to know when you are actually cutting away to a stunt man. We wanted to make sure I could do as much of them as possible, as much of them as was safe, and the audiences were hip enough to go ‘oh wait that actually is him doing that. ‘I think that actually went a long way in selling me as the character and I just kind of stuck with that approach.”
He adopted that same approach for The Bourne Supremacy, which was directed by Paul Greengrass who returns re-unites with Damon again for the film that will complete the Bourne trilogy.
Both men, says Damon, feel like “guardians” of the franchise and fans of the films.
“We really are fans of the character and of the whole thing. And you know, that starts with some fantastic writing and great production values. So we’re both proud to be part of it and also we both want to do a great job because we are fans, too.
“I do enjoy (making) them because we’re allowed to make them the way that we want to, and we’re not asked to do any of the conventional things that normally you see in movies like this.”
He credits the studio, Universal, with giving the filmmakers creative freedom to run with a character that doesn’t fit into the usual parameters of a standard Hollywood hero.
Jason Bourne has been suffering from amnesia and is gradually, over the course of the films, piecing together the details of his former life as a political assassin – and he clearly doesn’t like what he’s discovering about himself.
After two extremely well received films the expectations for the third are running extremely high. “There are certain expectations that people have because they’ve seen the first two,” he agrees.
“There are certain signposts we have to hit but at the same time you can’t be repetitive or people go ‘oh they are just selling me the same old pair of sneakers.’ And that’s hard too, because you have to find new ways of being entertaining within the style that you have entertained them before without being repetitive. But I think we’ve got a great story and some great twists and turns.”
Damon, 36, is one of the best actors of his generation and enjoying a remarkable run of success. Recently, he starred alongside Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed which won Best Motion Picture at this year’s Oscars®. He played a CIA agent in Robert De Niro’s thriller, The Good Shepherd and will soon be seen with George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Thirteen.
Damon has a daughter, Isabella, who is nine months old, and a step-daughter, Alexia, with his wife Luciana.
This interview was conducted on set at London’s Waterloo railway station where The Bourne Ultimatum was filming a key scene involving Jason Bourne meeting a British investigative journalist (played by Paddy Considine).
Q: What does playing Jason Bourne mean to you?
MD: Obviously, it enables me and Paul to be the guardians of this franchise that we really are fans of. But also it enables us to go and do other films. Because of the success of these films we are afforded the opportunity to go and make films like United 93 or Syriana and, to a certain extent, The Departed. Now it’s come out and it’s done very well at the box office but classically Scorsese’s films don’t make very much money at the box office so nobody went into it thinking they were going to make money, we all did it because we wanted to work with Marty. So it’s easy to make choices to do films that you don’t think will do particularly well at the box office when you know you have a Bourne movie in your back pocket.
Q: You said that you and Paul feel like guardians of the franchise and fans of the film. What did you mean?
MD: Well, we really are fans of the character and of the whole thing. That starts with some fantastic writing and great production values. So we’re both proud to be part of it and also we both want to do a great job because we are fans, too.
Q: Do you enjoy doing them?
MD: Yeah, I do enjoy them because we’re allowed to make them the way that we want to, and we’re not asked to do any of the conventional things that normally you see in movies like this. Basically we are given more money in the budget, than we would normally get, to go and do a big movie the way we want to make it and I don’t think you get that chance very often.
Q: You’ve hit the double whammy with these films – they have had box office and critical acclaim. But does that increase the pressure on you for the third?
MD: There are certain expectations that people have because they’ve seen the first two. There are certain signposts we have to hit but at the same time you can’t be repetitive or people go ‘oh they are just selling me the same old pair of sneakers.’ And that’s hard too, because you have to find new ways of being entertaining within the style that you have entertained them before without being repetitive. But I think we’ve got a great story and some great twists and turns.
Q: Is it easier for you to work together with Paul Greengrass on The Bourne Ultimatum because you know each other so well?
MD: Paul has become really difficult since the success of the first one and the success of United 93. [Laughs.] Seriously, it definitely helps that we have such a good working relationship and a history together with the last film. He’s a great guy and a fantastic director.
Q: The first film, The Bourne Identity, reinvented you as a commercial star…
MD: (Laughs) Basically what you are saying is that it saved my ass and that’s completely true. The weekend that it opened I was doing a play in the West End and I hadn’t had a film offer in six months because I’d had a couple of movies tank and the word was that the first Bourne movie was going to tank, because it had been delayed so long and it had so many rounds of re-shooting and it just had all the hallmarks of a turkey. So I went from the Friday night of my final weekend of doing this play to the Monday morning when I returned to New York and I had something like 20 or 30 movie offers, just based on the opening weekend of The Bourne Identity. So it’s pretty easy to understand why these movies have been a great boon for me.
Q: From speaking to the producers, they tell me that a Bourne script can, and often will, change as you go along. Do you embrace that?
MD: Yes, definitely. These are long projects, longer than most just because of the way we work. On the last one we were shooting up until two weeks before it came out. It’s like a work in progress until it’s released and we keep tweaking it. And the studio is great and lets us do that, and normally you don’t get to do that with movies. You always want to but you don’t always get that luxury of going back and picking up things that you want. In both cases with the first two movies, they were testing well, certainly well enough to be released and for the studio to not put any more money in, but we went back to them and said ‘look we have these ideas for these little scenes, we really think it will make it substantially better, even though it might not seem like it, but these little changes will make a huge difference.’ And they just went with us on that on the first movie and it proved them right. And then the second time when we re-shot an ending a week and a half before the movie opened so that made a big difference too. So they are very open to us working in that way.
Q: That was the New York ending in The Bourne Supremacy?
MD: Yeah, it worked really well. And it was a vast improvement on what we had there. Actually, I always wanted to end it where Bourne walked out after apologising to the Russian girl and he is just sat there on this park bench, just bleeding in the snow and I loved that, it was like ‘what’s he going to do now? He’s tried to atone for what he is done and now he is kind of sitting there bleeding out on this bench.’ But it was just so dark and everyone, Paul and Frank (Marshall, producer) and the studio, I think I was on my own with that one. [Laughs.]
Q: Not all actors take to filming action sequences. Was it a learning curve for you?
MD: Yeah. Each sequence is different. I think it’s hard to gauge a performance within those sequences because you can feel really kind of goofy. I mean, my only experience doing them is with these Bourne movies and I think I’ve got a little better at them. But they always require slightly different things. My approach was to figure out what the sequences require and then train as much as I possibly could so that physically I could do them in a way that was believable. And at the end of the day the only job you have as an actor is to be believable and not take people out of the movie by looking like you don’t know what you are doing, or that you couldn’t do what the movie is saying you can. I think it is a little more demanding to do them the way we do them.
Q: You set the tone with the first film, The Bourne Identity. Did you spend a lot of time discussing your approach to the role with the director, Doug Liman?
MD: Yes. He and I had lots of conversations about it. He had this idea of casting me and at the time nobody had put me in a movie anything like this, and my big fear and his big fear, was that people weren’t going to accept me as the character. So we decided that the best way to overcome that was if I just over trained like crazy for all of these things – for the fighting and the firearms – so that I could actually do them. Because audiences are smart enough to know when you are actually cutting away to a stunt man. We wanted to make sure I could do as much of them as possible, as much of them as was safe, and the audiences were hip enough to go ‘oh wait that actually is him doing that. ‘ And I think that went a long way in selling me as the character and I just kind of stuck with that approach.
Q: Do you enjoy the physical challenges of the role?
MD: Yeah, it’s interesting. That’s the best part of this job for me, the time before we start working is when I get to quietly go and try these things out. And it’s particularly fun when the shots are challenging and everybody is working together and it’s because the camera operator does something and you do something and everybody is working in concert and you pull off a shot that is really difficult and you do it all in camera. That’s a pretty exciting thing to happen.
Q: Did you meet special forces people for your research?
MD: Well, for the first one I met with different specialists: martial arts people, a boxer.
Q: Why a boxer?
MD: Because Doug had a theory that I thought was really interesting and turned out to be right. He wanted the character to walk like a boxer because he felt like there was a real economy of movement in the way those guys carry themselves, an assuredness in their posture. I had six months and I had never boxed before and I went and trained and really it changed my body and also it worked and it changed the way I walked a little bit. And for the firearms training I went to a former SWAT marksman and he just took me to the desert in LA and we would work six or eight hours at a time and he taught me everything. We had all summer to work on it and he was great.
Q: The character has that physicality but more of his very dark side is being revealed in each successive film. What’s that like to play?
MD: Well, it’s really interesting. For me to do that in a mainstream movie is actually a great coup for us. When in a big American movie have you seen the protagonist kill two people in the middle of the second act and then at the end go and apologise for it and to start to understand the consequences of his actions? (as in The Bourne Supremacy) I really thought that was a good thing to put out in a mainstream movie, particularly with everything going on in the world. And that was the big attraction for me. Doug Liman always talked about that. Because Robert Ludlum wrote it and it was this Cold War novel and Doug’s movie was very different from the book other than its title. We kind of went far a-field right out of the gate. Doug always said he was turning a Republican novel into a Democratic movie. [Laughs.]
Q: How does Paul Greengrass’s background in documentary filmmaking influence the style of the Bourne films?
MD: What really helps, particularly in the last movie, and it does come from documentary work, it’s that he never lets the camera anticipate the action. When something happens the camera reacts to it, it’s following the action, which is the same with a documentary. As a result you are sitting there watching and you start to feel really insecure because you know that if something blows up you are not going to be in on the gag, it’s going to blow up and knock you over! [Laughs.] It’s really based on all that documentary work and I think it adds to the film aesthetically. And when people say ‘I was on the edge of my seat..’ what they are really responding to is that sub conscious feeling of insecurity.
Q: You’re a father now, with a step-daughter and a baby. Do you try and take the family with you when you are away filming for Bourne?
MD: Yes, I do. In fact, we started in Tangier and they didn’t come for those few weeks and that was really, really miserable so we decided en masse, as a group, that we are just going to make a go of it on the road. It’s a new experience but it seems, knock on wood, that’s it’s going to be a good one for everybody.
Q: Are you enjoying being a father?
MD: It’s great and just for peace of mind. It’s great that we are all together and having all these adventures together. I’ve been on my own for so long on the road, you know, before these kids came along, and there was always that feeling of ‘I really want to show this to somebody.’ It grates on you after a while. So to have them here with me and to know that they are out having adventures when I’m at work is wonderful.
Q: You’ve had a fantastic couple of years – working with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro and now back on Bourne. Has it changed you as an actor?
MD: I hope so. I feel like I got better. I learned so much working with Bob. I jumped into that role pretty quickly and he had been basically preparing it for eight or nine years and he said to me ‘look I’ve prepared this role, you don’t have to worry about anything I’m going to walk you through this moment by moment,’ and he really did. To be working that closely with him on a movie that mattered to him was so special. It was the best year of my career – you know, between Bob and Marty, it literally couldn’t be going any better. I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop for like ten years but things keep getting better. I just want it to keep going.