Director Tony Gilroy on Creating Action Scenes The “Bourne” Way

After writing the entire series and directing “The Bourne Legacy,” Tony Gilroy knows how epic action scenes are built. Here, he discusses how environment, design and sticking with the character are key to authentic Bourne action.

The opening shot of The Bourne Legacy, the fourth entry in a decade-spanning series, is a shaded figure floating facedown underwater, arms akimbo. The first movie began that way too, with Matt Damon’s amnesiac superspy moments away from rescue. The difference is that, in Legacy, the figure springs to life on his own and bolts toward the surface, a symbolic passing of the franchise-torch from Damon’s Bourne to a new character, played by Jeremy Renner. While the leads may have changed, the real star of the series has always been its intense, hyper-realistic action sequences. And the new film, in theaters August 10, has those in spades.

“Authenticity is the key. That’s the benchmark for this franchise,” says Academy Award-nominated director Tony Gilroy. “There are a few strands of DNA that are universal to the whole thing, and the baseline to all of them is authenticity--that the action feels real. And that’s what’s fresh about it, hopefully. That’s what you navigate towards in every other decision you make as a writer and as a director--it’s all about what feels real.”

Tony Gilroy

Gilroy, who wrote the first three films, stepped into the driver’s seat for the fourth one, and in doing so, got a crash course in bringing the series’ beloved action scenes from page to screen.

The estate of Bourne creator Robert Ludlum approached Gilroy for an informal brain-picking session about moving the franchise ahead in a non-Jason Bourne world. His inclusion in the project began not as a writer or a director, but as a problem-solver, and from there his role evolved into a leadership one.

Once the team was on board with Gilroy’s premise--that Jason Bourne was part of a much larger conspiracy involving other as-yet-unmentioned superagents--the director got to focus on crafting action scenes that are pure spectacle, but also grounded in reality, something that has become the series’ calling card. Gilroy spoke to Co.Create about the work involved in cutting to the chase.

Decide Where The Action Is And Go There

I’ve never been able to write an action scene that really mattered without going to the place it will be shot. We knew we wanted the movie to go to Southeast Asia in the third act, so we had to figure out where exactly it should go. We picked three places for our initial trip—Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, and Manila—and went to all three, looking at what it would be like to film the scene in each of those places. By the time we were actually writing the action sequences, we were writing to very specific locations, which I had already been walking a year before the start of the shoot.

On Bourne Supremacy, we went on scouting missions to Berlin and Moscow: walking the streets, going to markets. "What if he breaks a bottle of vodka here?" For Ultimatum, we went to Tangier and Morocco while I was writing it, and we went on all of those rooftops you see in the movie. We went to Medina and wandered around for a week, accumulating all these details. Once in production, things tend to shift in transit, but they were all in the beginning as ideas we got from the environment.

Writing An Action Scene Is Also Designing

When you’re writing on spec, you write a lot of action that needs to be exciting to the person reading it, but in a sense it’s abstract until the rubber meets the road and you’re really doing it. By the time we get there, these scenes are more than written. Sometimes they’re storyboarded, sometimes we videotape sequences of them with stand-ins. It’s very practical. It’s hard to say between writing and designing—where one stops and the other takes off.

Wherever you are right now, say it’s in an office building? Pretend that’s going to be the setting of an action sequence. I would go there and look around, go to the fire escape, go to the basement, go to the roof. If we walked through your office for a few hours and took a camera out and just played around with it, we’d find all kinds of things in that specific environment. Maybe you think it’s a mundane environment, but maybe there’s some aspect of the boringness of it that could make it really cool. It’s not until you’re actually in the place and you look around and see what might be used as a weapon or an escape or a dead end. It’s a design-build way of doing it.

Embrace the Environment’s Limitations

What’s great are the limitations. You see where the roof is, where the elevator shaft is, where the parking garage is next door, and those are all opportunities. But what are the limitations? This leads to nowhere or that doesn’t work or this is too small—what if we put something in a room that’s too small? We saw that alleyway in the [narrow, three-story structure that the Legacy filmmakers called “the chasm”]. That’s something that [series producer] Pat Crowley and I saw in Ho Chi Minh City when we were running our beauty pageant for where to set this third act. We saw it and thought what if there was a fight in here? And what if he slid down from the roof? How would we stage it? What a cool, limiting, wrong place to have a fight.

Character-Based Action Requires An Element of Journalism

We take action from a very character point of view. You don’t follow the missile as it hurls into the tank. Our action is very much from the character’s point of view so we give a lot of things away. We want to see it on a human scale so even when we’re following a drone, we always want it to be in a place where you really feel like a camera could or would really be. We want to do things that have an element of journalism to them, and there’s a lot of great action pictures that don’t do that--there’s a whole different vocabulary for a lot of different movies--but that’s our color palette and that’s our toolbox. It’s always from the character’s point of view, and never sensationalized in any sort of omniscient way.

Universal Pictures

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3 Comments

  • Nick Hart

    This movie was just excellent! Tony Gilroy did a bang up job - the most intelligent, adult, visceral, thrilling, exciting movie I have watched in literally years. I sat in the cinema on the edge of my seat for most of the movie! I really hope this movie does well - it deserves to - I definitely think that a sequel is in order! 

  • SlaveryToday

    Weisz was Superb. Renner was Superb. (we did notice the nice homage opener too). You better have the sequel ready very quickly, that cue closing music was a shock.

  • Saidas108

    The more realistic and grittier feel to the new James Bond films with Daniel Craig is far superior to the dreck that preceded it, but the Bourne films do it even better.