10th Anniversary: 5 Things You Might Not Know About 'The Bourne Identity'

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by The Playlist Staff
June 14, 2012 2:01 PM
5 Comments
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Ten years and one day ago, Doug Liman was an independent director with a couple of critical favorites behind him. Ten years and one day ago, Matt Damon was the promising writer/star of "Good Will Hunting" who's seemingly squandered his potential on a string of questionable movie choices, kept near A-list only by his presence in "Ocean's Eleven" (where he tellingly only played a smaller supporting role). Ten years and one day ago, the spy genre was increasingly tired, with the Bond movies moving into new levels of ridiculousness (that year's "Die Another Day" would introduce Madonna and invisible cars to the series).

And then came Jason Bourne. "The Bourne Identity," directed by Liman, written by Tony Gilroy (who wrote the entire 'Bourne' trilogy' and now has the keys to the franchise) and starring Damon, had been long-delayed and had a famously troubled production, but when it finally hit at the height of summer, it proved to be an invigoration of the action movie, and became a huge international hit, taking in over $200 million worldwide, and leading to two other movies starring Damon, 2004's "The Bourne Supremacy" and 2007's "The Bourne Ultimatum," both helmed by Paul Greengrass (a new iteration, "The Bourne Legacy," staring Jeremy Renner as the new lead and written and directed by Gilroy arrives in August).To mark the tenth anniversary of that first film, which hit theaters on June 14th, 2002, we've assembled five things you may not know about the original "Bourne Identity." Check them out below.

1. The idea to make the film came from huge 'Bourne' fan Doug Liman himself, although he had to talk Tony Gilroy into the project.
Liman had been a fan of Robert Ludlum's "The Bourne Identity" since he was in high school (the first in a trilogy of books by the author, which have since been added to by seven others, by Eric Van Lustbader, after Ludlum passed away in 2001), but ended up re-reading it during the production of "Swingers" in 1996, and when that film became a big hit, the director became interested in making it into a film. The rights were tied up at Warner Bros., so Liman moved on to "Go" first, but the helmer remained interested, and soon received a tip off that the rights were about to lapse, and optioned them from Ludlum himself, flying himself to Ludlum's home in Montana to secure those rights just days after he had earned his aviation license. As of 2008, the doorbell at Liman’s Tribeca loft read “Bourne J.”; the filmmaker was no fareweather fan of the books.

A number of writers were brought on -- W. Blake Herron ("Ripley Under Ground") was the first, and received credit, David Self ("Road To Perdition") was involved at some point, and didn't. Eventually, Liman went to Gilroy, then best known for "The Devil's Advocate," but the screenwriter decidedly wasn't a fan of the source material, telling the New Yorker years later that "Those works were never meant to be filmed. They weren’t about human behavior. They were about running to airports. The filter that readers put on to read a certain kind of fiction is very forgiving.” Showing him the existing script didn't help much either: Gilroy described it as "a huge fifteen-gunmen-on-the-Metro-blowing-the-fuck-out-of-everything kind of movie." Nevertheless, Liman managed to get a meeting, and asked Gilroy what he would do, and was advised to tear up everything except the central concept. Gilroy told him, "Your movie should be about a guy who finds the only thing he knows how to do is kill people.” He was hired, and went on to co-write all three films in the original trilogy, and is directing the aforementioned new installment of the series which is mostly Jason Bourne-free.

2. The novel is wildly, wildly different from the movie.
As such, while earlier drafts had adhered closer to the Ludlum novel, Gilroy essentially started from scratch, throwing out almost all connections to the source material. Gilroy told the New Yorker, "Anything that’s from the book is in the first five minutes, in which Bourne, inexplicably, has got microfilm in his ass. Why? I don’t know! After that, when he steps off the boat, everything else is mine,” but to be fair, the connections do hang on a little longer, in terms of the basic structure; he still goes to Zurich, and takes a hostage called Marie, before moving on to Paris. But there's more action, and a different villain, with Bourne hunted by the real-life terrorist Carlos the Jackal (who was actually captured in 1994). In the U.S, one of his operatives kills a number of Treadstone employees, including Gordon Webb, a U.S. army officer who later turns out to be Bourne's brother. Our hero befriends a French military general, only to discover that his wife is a mole for Carlos. And by the end, Bourne is in New York, looking for Treadstone, confronted by Carlos and Alexander Conklin (the part eventually taken by Chris Cooper), who is a crippled friend of his, who has been tasked with cleaning up the mess. And at the end, it's revealed to Marie that Bourne is really David Webb, a foreign service officer who lost his Thai wife and children in a friendly fire bombing in Cambodia. Joining a special ops team called Medusa, he killed a double agent, known as Jason Charles Bourne, taking his identity, and later became an assassin known as Cain, created as a rival to Carlos the Jackal. Thankfully, virtually all of this backstory was dumped by Gilroy. Liman was still able to put his personal stamp on things: the inner workings of Treadstone were inspired by his father, prominent attorney Arthur Liman's experiences, of investigating the Iran/Contra affair during the Reagan administration.

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5 Comments

  • Nick | June 24, 2012 2:38 PMReply

    > "Tellingly, Marshall, Gilroy, Damon and several other production members appear in various elements of the bountiful "The Bourne Identity" DVD extras and features, but Liman is nowhere to be seen or found."

    Not quite true: the film's original DVD release includes a commentary from Liman. (However, it was omitted from the Special Edition DVD re-release, and I'm not sure if it's on the Blu-Ray)

  • Stevo the Magnificent | June 16, 2012 12:04 AMReply

    One of the best action movies yet made without a doubt; tight, focused, emotionally engaging, thrilling, and not a single moment that's extraneous. I haven't a clue who should take the credit for how well it (and it's two superb sequels) all worked out, but I just know how good all three are, and I hope the eventual '24' movie will be as good...

  • sidsbowl | June 15, 2012 8:39 AMReply

    Gilroy took a big check to write a draft of Ultimatum that was rejected as "unfilmable" and then refused to do any rewrites, putting the production in a terrible position. Ultimatum was written by Scott Z Burns. Funny how Gilroy keeps forgetting that.

    The ending for Supremacy was rewritten by Matt Damon and George Nolfi. Their ending scored ten points higher with audiences.

  • Writers | June 16, 2012 11:15 PM

    You're right -- I think Gilroy receives an undue amount of credit for these films. Particularly when he personally hates them.

    Supremacy was a mix of Gilroy and Brian Helgeland -- Greengrass cut-n-pasted a shooting script together -- which is why Gilroy hates Greengrass more than Liman. And as you said, the Supremacy got a new ending written by George Nolfi.

    Ultimatum -- Gilroy didn't want to work with Greengrass again, so he took the (first draft only) money and ran. But his first draft was NOT unfilmable, and a LOT of it remains in the finished film (in story at least). After Gilroy, they hired Tom Stoppard. Not sure what he contributed (if anything). Then, Nolfi and Scott Z Burns, and the shooting script was a cut-n-paste mess AGAIN, but it resulted in the best film of the series.

  • Hewston | June 15, 2012 3:28 AMReply

    Love these features, please keep them up.

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