This article appears in the Jan. 6, 2012 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It seemed out of character and out of left field: Matt Damon attacking The Bourne Identity screenwriter Tony Gilroy in the pages of GQ magazine, accusing him of writing an “unreadable” script for the third movie and then walking away, leaving director Paul Greengrass to fight through “chaos.”
The comments, which landed awkwardly Dec. 14 online as Damon was promoting We Bought a Zoo, prompted top executives around Hollywood to wonder, as one puts it, what had happened that made “the nicest guy in town blow his stack.”
In a radio interview with this reporter for KCRW’s The Business, Damon explains that he was caught off guard in Vancouver on the set of his next film, Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, when he found himself next to the just-opened offices for The Bourne Legacy, the fourth movie in the franchise, which is being written and directed by Gilroy — and has no role for Damon.
Those offices “opened up right outside my trailer,” says Damon. “I was seeing this every day, and then I came back to New York and did this interview and kind of blurted it out. … It was idiotic of me to say anything. At the end of the day, it’s between me and Tony, and we’ll figure it out or we won’t.”
The sight of that office was so disturbing because of a deep years-long rift over who is the true keeper of the Bourne flame: Greengrass, who directed the second and third films to ever-growing grosses, or Gilroy, who has been a writer on every Bourne. As a result, it is not clear that Damon ever will reprise the Jason Bourne role, though he says that’s what he wants to do.
The first Bourne film, directed by Doug Liman, was a deeply troubled production, and Gilroy, along with producer Frank Marshall, pulled it back from the brink. But when Greengrass came on to direct 2004’s Bourne Supremacy, he and Gilroy began to loathe each other. “Paul and Tony have clashing styles,” says a source with knowledge of the conflict. “Tony does all the work before and delivers a finished script. Paul wants the script to be ever-evolving during shooting.” But Damon believes the director is king, and his loyalty was and is to Greengrass.
So Gilroy would not even have worked on 2007’s Bourne Ultimatum, except Greengrass couldn’t develop a script in the time allotted. And the clock was ticking: Not only had author Robert Ludlum’s estate imposed a timetable, but also the studio did not want to let Bourne disappear for too long. “It was an important franchise,” says Stacey Snider, then chairman of Universal. “We went to Tony and said, ‘Can you come up with something?’ “
Gilroy did, and though Damon bashed him for walking away after writing one (allegedly lousy) draft, several sources including Snider say Gilroy had made it clear that he would do only one draft and possibly a revision because he was committed to his directing debut, Michael Clayton.
Damon’s allegation that the draft was “unreadable” is something that Snider and others dispute. Universal co-chairman Donna Langley says she was “thrilled with the script Tony submitted and greenlit the film based on that script.” (Greengrass subsequently brought in other writers, including Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi, who were awarded credit alongside Gilroy.)
Bourne Ultimatum grossed a robust $443 million worldwide, and Universal naturally wanted another movie. The studio had backed Greengrass in making the $100 million-plus bomb Green Zone with Damon in hope of keeping them on board for the next Bourne. But again, Greengrass failed to come up with a workable script in the time allotted.
In November 2009, with Greengrass still uncommitted, top Universal brass — Ron Meyer, Adam Fogelson and Langley — flew to New York, took Damon to dinner and explained that they wanted to move ahead. Damon said that for him, there was no Bourne without Greengrass.
After that, says Langley, the Ludlum estate turned again to Gilroy, who had an idea for a script. This one would focus on another agent (Jeremy Renner) but leave the door ajar for Damon’s character to return. To Damon’s camp, this seemed like good news because Universal had considered pulling a “Bond,” simply replacing Damon in the lead.
Fast-forward to October 2010, when news broke that Gilroy would write and direct the next movie. No one from Universal had informed Damon that Greengrass was being replaced by his old adversary. The studio has not discussed it with him since. “It certainly wasn’t an omission for any reason,” says Langley. “You just have to move on with your business.” For now, she adds, “the franchise can live on [with Renner]. If at some point it can include Matt Damon, fantastic. If it can’t, we’re reconciled to that.”
Damon says he fully expects to return to Bourne. “I think if [Bourne Legacy] doesn’t work, we can just ignore it and pretend it didn’t happen, and that’d be fine,” he says. “But I expect that it will work and only help us if we did another one, which I’d love to do.”
He’d love to do it, that is, with Greengrass. “With all the twists and turns that have happened in this franchise, it’s impossible to predict the future,” says Langley. “But for now, we are looking forward to seeing Tony’s Bourne film.”