'Jason Bourne' Co-Screenwriter and Editor Shares Behind-the-Scenes Moments

"I always looked at editing as writing," says Oscar-winning editor Christopher Rouse.
Universal Pictures

The final act of Universal's Jason Bourne, opening today, takes place at a tech conference in Las Vegas, where government officials and Silicon Valley leaders are debating online privacy versus national security. When the news broke earlier this year of the dispute between the FBI and Apple, which was triggered when the FBI asked the tech giant to unlock an encrypted Apple iPhone following the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., the Bourne filmmakers suddenly found reality echoing the fiction they had invented.

“That was an incredible coincidence,” says Christopher Rouse, who not only edited the movie but co-wrote it with director Paul Greengrass. “We were amazed and flabbergasted. It was one of those amazing instances of life imitating art, or art imitating life. It also made us feel that we tapped into something that was immediate and real and important.”

For the fourth outing of Jason Bourne, the former CIA operative on-the-run played by Matt Damon, Rouse, who won an Oscar for editing 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, which Greengrass also directed, and earned additional Oscar nominations for Greengrass’ Captain Phillips and United 93, tried his hand at screenwriting for the first time. But, he says, the transition felt like a natural one. “I’ve written under the radar for quite some time, and I always looked at editing as writing," he tells The Hollywood Reporter.

He's actually following in the footsteps of his father, the late writer/director Russell Rouse, who won an Oscar for the screenplay to 1959’s Pillow Talk starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day. “My father always told me that story was first and foremost,” Rouse says. “We would watch, not just his films but a lot of classic American films. My father was a great David Lean fan, and David Lean’s one of my favorite directors. We would discuss films endlessly. My dad used to explain to me that editing is fundamentally writing with film.”

Rouse says that for some time he and Greengrass had talked about writing together: “A couple years ago, I said some of the topics we had been exploring seemed to be good territory for a Bourne film — in the broader sense the world in flux, people feeling disenfranchised, the dominance of social media, surveillance and how you measure personal rights against public safety.

“It seemed that if you took a character like Bourne, who at the core is a character who was betrayed by the institutions he believed in, and that was a palpable idea in today’s world, and you create a narrative that was both personally strong and had some metaphorical value, we might be on the road to having an interesting story.”

Having directed the last two of the three Bourne films, the director was initially more skeptical. But he encouraged Rouse to explore their ideas, which became the central themes in Jason Bourne. “Paul wasn’t going to commit to doing another Bourne film unless he though there was a good Bourne film to be made,” Rouse says, adding though that it wasn’t long before Greengrass, who started out in documentary filmmaking, was on board.

“One thing that makes Paul’s films incredibly special and unique is they don’t tend to beat people over the head with a point of view,” Rouse says. “If you can depict situations and explore life in a truthful way and explore areas of grey — because that’s where the truth lives, and you can do that in an objective way, and allow people to take from that what they will — I think it’s a satisfying sweet spot with storytelling.”

In the end, they created a fast-paced thriller, combining Greengrass’ kinetic filmmaking style with their highly relevant underlying themes.

Asked if in the editing room, he ever found his screenwriting ideas coming into conflict with his editing instincts, Rouse responds, “As a writer I was obviously attached to things I had on page, but as an editor you always try to treat everything objectively and the film evolves and begins to speak to you in different ways during the filmmaking process.

“What was true on page six months ago isn’t necessarily true when you are cutting a scene six months later. There were a couple instances where I had to weigh what I believed once upon a time and take myself to task about that. But I think I was appropriately hard on myself when I needed to be.”

Rouse was grateful for the experience. "Paul is such a truthful filmmaker, and he's interested in stories about our world and he pursues them relentlessly. I feel very lucky to work with such a gifted artist and a really good soul and great friend besides."

He reveals that the two want to write together again, but it’s unlikely that the next collaboration with be another Bourne film. Says Rouse: “I don’t think [another Bourne film] would be next; the types of thing we are talking about would be quite different."

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