It’s been nine years since Jason Bourne has graced movie screens, seemingly finishing his cinematic journey in 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum. The franchise continued without him, actor Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass with 2012’s The Bourne Legacy, which saw Jeremy Renner take over as new operative Aaron Cross. Two years ago, Greengrass and Damon announced they would return to the franchise after a long hiatus, with Greengrass writing with his longtime editor Christopher Rouse.
For Rouse, who won an Academy Award for his work on The Bourne Ultimatum and has been with the franchise since the beginning with 2002’s The Bourne Identity (though he skipped Legacy), Jason Bourne is no stranger. The son of a screenwriter, Rouse has also been working as an editor since the 1990s, but it’s his continual collaboration with Greengrass that led to him writing his first credited screenplay.
Jason Bourne sees Damon return as the seminal secret agent, whose past continues to haunt him all these many years later. Joining Damon is Julia Stiles, reprising her role as Bourne’s CIA contact Nicky Parsons, Alicia Wikander as Heather Lee, as CIA agent who may be sympathetic to Bourne’s plight, and Tommy Lee Jones as CIA director Robert Dewey.
While this entry into the franchise continues Bourne’s attempt to unravel his past, Rouse and Greengrass also work in some pressing issues of the day, as Bourne adjusts to a world where cyber security seems less and less secure and there seems to be no escape from the watchful eyes of CCTV cameras.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with him about working with Paul Greengrass, how editing helps him write, and the difficulties of crafting dialogue for Jason Bourne.
You’ve worked primarily as an editor. Had ever you written something before?
Well, I’d written on a lot of different projects where I’d edited, you know contributed writing under the radar and I’ve written screenplays myself that hadn’t sold. My father was a screenwriter and I’ve written since I was a kid, but this is the first time that I’ve written something from scratch that was made into a film where I was credited.
How did you and Paul Greengrass decide to write this movie together?
He and I talked about writing something together for a long time but we never landed on anything, but then about two years ago I called him up and said some of the areas that he and I had been discussing would be really fertile territory for a Bourne film.
Paul was pretty skeptical at first but he said, “if you really believe that, then why don’t you do some exploration and let’s see where you get to.” And he and Matt and producer Frank Marshall encouraged me to do that and I guess I got far enough down the road where Paul became enthusiastic and believed there was something to be had there. So he and I sat down and started writing it properly together.
So if Paul wasn’t interested in doing a Bourne movie until you came up with some ideas, are you the one that got him to come back?
Well, I don’t think anybody could get Paul back, I don’t think that’s how Paul works. He’s just an incredibly truthful, self-motivated artist and it wouldn’t matter if I made a compelling case to him politically or the studio or anybody else. The only way he’s going to make a film is if he believes there’s really a a film to be made there.
So I would say that I just piqued his interest a little bit and told him what I thought, which was a lot of the things we’d been talking about. He and I have very similar interests dramatically about the changing complex in the contemporary world and the technological revolution and surveillance state and all that kind of stuff.
Those were things we’d discussed in the past, vis a vis other narratives, but that, to me, made sense that you could take a character like Bourne who, at his heart is looking for answers in a complex world, and put him in that kind of territory and we’d be in a really interesting place.
To that end, what made Bourne a proper vehicle for the issue of cyber security?
Well, again I think there’s several aspects of this character. One is that Bourne’s a patriot who ostensibly signed up for a program to defend his country, and he believed in institutions of power that ultimately betrayed him. I think that those feelings are very, very palpable today, where people feel disenfranchised from the corridors of power and feel those institutions they believed in have turned their back on them and shut them out in the cold.
So Bourne’s character is very emblematic of what a lot of people are feeling today, and because of what he discovers of what has been done to him in this piece, I think it goes through to the larger aspects of surveillance state and post-Snowden, NSA and those kind of things.
And yet, you still made the movie very personal for Bourne. Was that important for you?
Well, first and foremost a Bourne story has to be about him and therein lies the challenge. You got a guy, looking in his rear view trying to understand aspects of his past, so he can reconcile his present and figure out how he is going to attend to the future.
Before we did anything else, we had to determine what would be the most compelling narrative and through line for him and then begin to craft everything else, the other characters, the B and C side stories and how they would inform, either directly of metaphorically, a Bourne journey.
Was that the first thing you ran with in terms of writing the movie, how it affected Bourne? Or was it the other aspects, the Snowden and NSA aspects, that inspired you to write the movie?
It was sort of hand in glove because we’d talked about those other areas in other narratives prior to Bourne, but when it came to putting Bourne front and center in that world, it felt like a very natural and dramatically fertile place for him to be.
It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg question, because they were both concurrent. The minute we were going down the road of a Bourne story, we knew that was the territory we wanted to explore. We marched together with both.
What was the process like collaborating with Paul Greengrass on the script?
This is our sixth film together, so we know each other incredibly well. We’d written things together, not wholesale scripts, but we know each other intimately in so many ways and we share similar sensibilities, similar interests, and we’re both pretty hard on ourselves. We’re pretty self-critical and we’re both pretty open and honest about assessing each other’s work.
That process all felt wonderful and natural and very safe. We started figuring out what were the particulars of a narrative for Bourne that would make sense in this world and what would the other characters be that would best support him. How could we, again, have Bourne look into the past but have characters like Alicia, or Riz Ahmed, who plays a social media software guru, that would be throwing to the future as well?
I think it wouldn’t feel satisfying if we just had a film where Bourne had retrieved aspects of his past and had a reconciliation solely with the CIA and had not thrown to anything that felt current, contemporary or forward-thinking.
You’ve said before that your relationship with Paul as a director and editor was very intuitive and you didn’t even need to talk that much.
But in writing, you have to discuss the plot points, your acts, and how you were going to breakdown the script. How did your relationship change in the process of writing together?
Early on, I went to London and we spent some time walking around, talking broad stroke ideas. Then we both started putting down beats on a page and passing them back and forth. And then those beats became a skeletal treatment and then a more fully formed treatment with more fleshed out beats and then once we were pleased with that, Paul presented it to the studio formally and we went forward properly writing the screenplay.
It was an ongoing, almost daily dialogue – we talk all the time anyway, almost every day because we’re good friends. We talk during production, we talk during post, so this was just a natural extension of that.
We would write, we would pass things back and forth, we would talk about what worked, what didn’t, what directions we might want to head in. It was just a very vigorous, dynamic exchange of a conversation and materials that we passed back and forth.
Sometimes a writing partnership can become contentious. Did you ever try to settle an argument with Paul over a line by saying, “Fine, have it your way, but I’ll just edit it out later.”
[Laughs.] Jokingly, yes. But the bottom line is, he’s the boss so he gets his way. But yeah, I did throw that card down a couple of times.
But he’s the boss, so if it’s a coin toss, he wins.
How do you think your experience as an editor helped you in writing the script?
I think certainly it helps me understand narratives and structures and goals of characters and obstacles, both in terms of a macro three-act structure and also incrementally in scenes. I try to be very attuned to that, whether it’s a Bourne film or any other film I work on.
But I think for Bourne films, particularly when it comes to complex areas, like a third-act structure, where you’ve got multiple characters in different ways coming to bear upon each other dramatically, where you’re trying to build things to a crescendo or different type of crescendos, I think my editing skills certainly helped me in that regard.
For example, in the third act, if I know I’m building to a particular place and I know I’ve got a group of characters that have got to converge and certain things have to occur, often I’ll reverse-engineer the piece. So I’ll start at the end and start breaking it down backwards, knowing that I’ve got to have a certain number of beats to get somebody from here to there and they’ve got to be cross-cutting or bouncing off of these other characters to maintain dramatic tension and suggest connectivity.
So oftentimes, I’ll work in reverse in those situations.
When it comes what is often referred to as “the vomit draft” did your editing skills help you avoid that or did you still write an initial draft that included every idea you had and then scale it back?
I would say less so because I tend to think in pretty concise terms. There were scenes that I would write or sequences that I would write that were overblown and bloated and I’d sit back and look at them and go, “For fuck’s sake, that’s got to be half as long as it is.”
So figure out how it’s going to be – and as you know this being a writer – so often the minute you start to pare things down and things begin to bind together they get more energy and they have more purpose and they feel like the stakes increase. And certainly in a genre piece like a Bourne film, that’s true so often.
Because I know I’m going to be in the cutting room somewhere down the road and I know that we need to make a two hour movie – I can calibrate in my head what’s necessary and generally how long sequences are going to be and what’s important.
It allows me probably to get to the place a little bit quicker where I know that a four-page dialogue scene that might play well as a standalone piece, at the end is going to be two pages long because that’s what the piece will bear.
Speaking of being meticulous, how detailed are with writing action scenes. You’re writing with Paul, you know how he might shoot it.
I tend to be quite meticulous on page, as is Paul, and then, inevitably, things happen on set and other creatives powerfully contribute as well. Whether you have an actor like Matt or a second unit director like Simon Crane, and they see something that makes sense to them, then things change.
I always think it makes sense to try and craft a narrative as strongly and precisely as possible, adhering to story on page, but then better ideas come up on the day and the dictates of what you’re able to do or not able to do on a set will pop up as well and have to be contoured.
But, like anything else, if your point of departure is a strong as it can be you’re going to be better off later on when you’re changing up – for whatever reason.
In this movie, and most of the other Bourne movies, Jason Bourne doesn’t talk a whole lot. Is that difficult or easy to write such a quiet character?
I’d say both. Certainly in this movie, he doesn’t speak much. In the first film, it was a bit different because he was with Famke for a large part of the film, but I certainly think it presents a challenge to have a character who you have to convey, in very deep terms, what’s going on with him emotionally but he doesn’t have the opportunity to express those feelings to other characters as much as he’d like.
So the challenge becomes: how do you create dramatic situations to express his state of mind, whether it’s him alone in a flophouse at the beginning of the film prior to Athens, staring into a mirror, or the types of flashbacks that he has, and what he’s like going into those flashbacks and how we’re experiencing those flashbacks with him and how we see the effects of those flashbacks after he’s experienced them.
So, yeah, it becomes a challenging issue, but I think something we hopefully pulled off pretty well.
Were there moments where you wrote something and think “That’s just not Jason Bourne. He wouldn’t say that.”
Totally. Many times. [laughs] And it’s that thing where you get myopic as a writer and you think, “oh, this is really, really good and there’s something about this that I find really profound or really interesting” and then when I wake up the next day and read what I’ve written – or sometimes it would be Paul pointing it out to me – you just shake your head and go, “For fuck’s sake, he would never, ever do that.”
So, yeah, that would happen. Certainly.
Once you are in the editing process, was it easy for you to turn the writer voice off and just be the editor or did you still want to make changes?
It’s funny, because prior to the film I asked myself that question: “how would Chris the writer co-exist with Chris the editor?” But, at the end of the day, it just wasn’t that big a deal because I’ve always looked at editing as writing with the film.
My father was a screenwriter and he would tell me time and time again, “It’s always about the story. It’s always about the story. It’s always about the story.”
And, in truth, the writing process does continue in the editing room, whether you’re re-engineering scenes, repurposing them, writing lines of ADR [Automated Dialogue Replacement – rerecording dialogue in the studio] to make things more clear or to turn scenes a bit differently, taking a dialogue scene and turning into a montage, inverting, whatever it is you’re constantly re-writing the piece, whether it’s in broad terms of very incremental terms with the way characters react and behave from cut to cut.
So, it wasn’t a difficult process for me and, if anything, it just made the process that much more enjoyable that I had spend that much time inhabiting the narrative, inhabiting the characters inhabiting the themes… it just made my editorial process that much more instinctive where I didn’t have to think as much.
So is this the end of the Bourne story?
I think those decisions are well above my pay grade [laughs], but listen, I’m a huge fan of the franchise and I love this franchise dearly and I suspect this franchise will continue as it’s supposed to continue. Or not.
But I kept my fingers crossed that we got a film that fits into the cannon reasonably well and we just hope people enjoy it and we’ll see where we are in a few years. Certainly the studio, Matt and Paul will have a conversation somewhere down the line, but I think if you were to ask anybody right now they would just say, “We all need to take a break, and take a deep breath and see where we are down the road.”
And just let Bourne be for a while?
Just let Bourne be for a while. Absolutely.