20 Unforgettable Secrets About The Bourne Identity

20 Unforgettable Secrets About The Bourne Identity thumbnail

Matt Damon’s Fight Scenes in “The Bourne Identity”: Live from E! Rewind

Jason Bourne may have forgotten who he was for a spell, but at least his mad fighting skills were still intact while he figured it out.

It’s been 20 years since the release of The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon‘s first outing as the Robert Ludlum-crafted CIA assassin who’s fished out of the Mediterranean Sea with amnesia and soon discovers there are all sorts of reasons why his former bosses would prefer he stay silent for good.

Despite already being an Oscar-winning screenwriter and nominated actor for Good Will Hunting, it was his debut outing as the lean, mean Mini-driving machine that vaulted Damon to action-hero status and secured him a $1 billion franchise to call his own.

Not that having what in hindsight were obviously all the right pieces in place for a top-notch, high-brow spy thriller ensured any sort of success whatsoever. After all, it’s not as if Damon was the first choice to play the perfect spy. Or that the script was finished when filming began. Or that they stayed on budget or didn’t have to push the release date back several times.

Heck, it wasn’t even the first production of The Bourne Ultimatum.

From the casting process to the chaos that meant visionary director Doug Liman would not be returning for any sequels to the work Damon put in to go from cute every-guy to believably brooding secret agent of extraordinary capabilities, here are 20 unforgettable secrets about the making of The Bourne Identity:

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1. Matt Damon was not the first Jason Bourne on-screen. Prolific author Robert Ludlum‘s 1980 thriller The Bourne Identity was first adapted in 1988 into a two-part miniseries starring Dr. Kildare heartthrob Richard Chamberlain as the amnesiac spy and Charlie’s Angels alum Jaclyn Smith as Marie St. Jacque, the intrepid Frenchwoman who helps him piece his life back together. What we’d now call a limited series also won an Emmy for its musical score.

2. Doug Liman was the driving force behind the big-screen update of The Bourne Identity, having reread the Ludlum classic while shooting the pop culture lodestar Swingers and deciding he wanted to make that next. (Though he made the frenetically hip small-time-crime indie comedy Go first.)

“When Swingers became a huge hit, Hollywood opened their doors and told me I could do anything I wanted,” the director told BBC News in 2002. “I said, ‘There’s this book that I really like’ and they said, ‘Anything but that book.’ Reason been that Warner Bros. controlled the rights. But eventually, I got a lucky break and discovered the rights were going to expire, asked Robert Ludlum’s permission to do this film and he gave it to me.”

According to a 2008 New York profile, Liman had just earned his pilot’s license and flew himself to Montana to meet with Ludlum at his home.

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3. Liman wanted Damon for the lead… eventually. Early on, though, he and everybody else who was making a movie wanted Brad Pitt to star in it—and Pitt was attached to The Bourne Identity until May 2000, just months before cameras started rolling. Pitt ultimately decided to head to Morocco to make Spy Game—another Cold War-era tale of CIA intrigue—that fall instead. 

Liman eventually figured out that Damon was his guy, but he still went through a who’s who of action stardom first. “I met with a wide range of people when casting for the film, people like Russell Crowe and even Sly Stallone at one point,” the director told BBC News. Tom Cruise was also reportedly considered, naturally, and would eventually work with Liman on the critically acclaimed Edge of Tomorrow and American Made.

“But when I sat down with Matt and explained that I wanted to take on an action movie but do it in a different way, I got the sense that he understood,” Liman recalled. “He was coming from the same place I was coming from and I felt we could become partners on this. Plus, I’m a big Matt Damon fan.”

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4. And vice versa. Damon didn’t set out to check off a box on his resume. Rather, he was drawn by what he felt Liman would bring to the table beyond the usual action movie tropes.

“I mean, at the end of the day, it’s still a genre film,” Damon told AV Club. “You have the banks of the river that are established, but there’s a lot of leeway in the river to do things that are unique. And because Doug was directing it, and he has this reputation for thinking outside the box a little bit, I thought it would be original. It would be like movies that I really like. We talked about La Femme Nikita and these European movies, and then also those kind of paranoid thrillers from the ’70s, so that’s what we were going for. That was the reason I did it.”

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5. When Liman asked Tony Gilroy in the spring of 2000 if he would be interested in rewriting an existing adaptation of The Bourne Identity, Gilroy didn’t think anyone should do it, let alone him.

“Those works were never meant to be filmed,” he told The New Yorker in 2009 of his initial thoughts on the matter. “They weren’t about human behavior. They were about running to airports.” The screenplay they sent him “was a huge, you know, 15-gunmen-on-the-Metro-blowing-the-fuck-out-of-everything kind of movie,” Gilroy remembered. 

He advised Liman to leave the novel, but take the character. “If you woke up, and you didn’t know who you were, you only have one way to find out, which is, like, the things you can do,” Gilroy recalled musing to the director. “What language do you speak? Do I know how to lay bricks? What do I know how to do? I guess your movie should be about a guy who finds the only thing he knows how to do is kill people.”

Ultimately, the Oscar-nominated writer-director of Michael Clayton, who also wrote three more Bourne scripts and directed The Bourne Legacy, was proud of that first film. Except, he noted, “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.”

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6. Liman envisioned Jason Bourne carrying himself a certain way—observantly and economically but with uncanny reflexes and instincts—so Damon grabbed his gloves. “I boxed for six months just to change the way that I walk… to convey a certain security with my own personal space,” the actor explained on NPR’s Morning Edition in 2004. “Getting punches thrown at you and throwing punches at somebody, if you do it enough it does change the way you carry yourself.”

The physicality helped ground the character and give him an identity, if you will, while he grappled with his memory loss.

“The way I approached it,” Damon told ScreenSlam at the time, “I figured, even though he doesn’t remember his past, there would be these things that were still very much present in who he was, even if he didn’t remember them…So [all that training] would inform the way I stood, or the way I listened to people and the way I looked at people.”

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7. “I had about three months to do the martial arts stuff and weapons training,” Damon shared with a smile in a behind-the-scenes featurette, “and all this stuff that was really fun to learn how to do. It was like a summer school in assassin training.

Stunt coordinator Nick Powell, whose previous credits included Braveheart and Gladiator, choreographed the fight scenes.

“I don’t usually fight in movies,” Damon acknowledged. “We worked it every day so that I could do it, so that I could be in there doing it—because movie audiences are so smart they’ll know if it’s the actor doing it or if they’re cutting away to a wide shot of some other guy who, you know, is much better at it. So the hope was that we would get it to a point where I could do as much of it as I could. And I ended up doing just about all of it.”

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8. Liman didn’t operate in predictable ways, including casting Franka Potente as Marie, Damon told ScreenSlam, which “I think makes it such a better movie and a more credible movie.” Like Liman himself, the German actress had made a name for herself in independent cinema, most famously the heart-pounding, choose-your-preferred-ending Run Lola Run from 1998.

His co-star being European “is far more organic to the story we’re telling,” Damon noted.

Liman recalled to The Ringer in 2020 that, while Potente’s chemistry with Damon needed a bit of time to develop, “It was obvious that she was going to be amazing in the role.”

Under contract for the sequel, Potente admitted to Female.com.au that she was not shocked but “maybe a bit bummed out” that she ended up having such a small part in The Bourne Supremacy.

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9. Julia Stiles, however, actually filmed what she thought was her character’s death scene in The Bourne Identity, only to have CIA logistics tech Nicky Parsons last all the way until 2016’s Jason Bourne.

“It was a complete surprise to me,” Stiles told Collider in 2021. “I filmed a scene where Jason Bourne flips Nicky upside down against a wall and I break my neck. So as far as I knew, that was it for Nicky Parsons.” She found out Nicky was alive when she was called in to record breathing sounds to indicate that she had survived.

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10. The Bourne Identity features one of the great movie car chases, Jason deftly steering Marie’s red Mini Cooper through the streets (not to mention down a cobblestone alley and a flight of stairs) of Paris to evade police.

Talking to The Ringer in 2020, Liman recalled the not exactly visionary moment he dreamed up the idea, when he and executive producer Allison Shearmur were brainstorming and it occurred to him that a car chase would make a great aphrodisiac for the lead characters.

“We were like, ‘Oh my god, we’re revolutionizing filmmaking,'” he quipped. “Obviously what I just described is as clichéd and banal as it gets.”

But one thing did lead to another, and when time came to film the love scene—which unfolds after Bourne tenderly dyes and cuts Marie’s hair—Liman and Damon were nervous wrecks, as the director recalled. So much so that Potente brought a bottle of Jägermeister to set. She “turned to Matt and me and she says, ‘You each need to do a couple of shots to just loosen the fuck up,'” he recalled. “It was the only time I’ve ever drunk on set. And I’m operating the camera—like, it could go south pretty quickly.” 

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11. They gave Potente extensions so that Damon could get the hair-cutting right.

“Every time he cut her hair, I would have to take her away, take out the old extensions and put in the new extensions,” key hair stylist Kay Georgiou told The Ringer. “They were fairly quick to turn around…It’s not the most beautiful haircut in the world, but it shouldn’t be.”

Asked about the famously romantic scene in 2012, Potenke replied to Esquire.com, “Well, it’s also a little bit off, isn’t it? It was this weird, dark, dirty, crazy little bathroom in this dirty place. And he was like robot-man doing the hair job.”

Universal Pictures

12. Liman flatly refused to have the considerably less expensive Montreal stand in for Paris.

“I was like, ‘What are they talking about? Because they speak French in Montreal, it’s going to look like Paris? Like, nothing looks like Paris,'” Liman recalled to the Wall Street Journal in 2002. He also hired a lot of locals for his crew, figuring, “I’ll practice my collegiate French.”

In addition to France, they also shot in Prague, Imperia (on the Italian coast), Rome, Mykonos, and Zürich.

But figuring out where they were going to physically make the movie was nowhere close to even half the battle.

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13. “Every time I had to make a decision, my inclination was against making a traditional action movie,” Liman recalled to Variety in 2008. “I wanted to make an art film the studio could sell as an action movie with trailer moments to trick the audience. They had no idea what to make of this.”

“Universal hated me,” he told New York more bluntly, also in 2008. “I had an archenemy in the studio. They were trying to shut me down. The producers were bad guys.”

Stacey Snider, then-chair of Universal Pictures, said in 2002 that the studio was on board with Liman’s vision, telling the Wall Street Journal after the production wrapped, “I was intrigued by the pairing of an independent-minded filmmaker with a familiar studio genre. Look, I’m a moviegoer and I’m bored. I’m getting tired of movies that all look the same.”

But, she explained, with big-studio financing and support comes big-studio oversight. “We want to be daring, we want to take risks,” she told the publication. “But you can’t just say, Let’s be bold and daring’ without any parameters. Then bold and daring becomes reckless.”

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14. “When I went to France I got this script that was unrecognizable from Tony’s script and unrecognizable in a way I was really uncomfortable with,” Damon recalled to Movie Habit in June 2002. “It became the exact kind of movie I would pass on, that I don’t want to do and that I avoided doing because there was the perfect number of explosions and everything. And not to knock this writer —because I think he did everything that those writers are supposed to do when they write one of those scripts—it was just totally different from the movie Doug and I wanted to make.”

Gilroy, much to his annoyance, was tasked with writing new scenes from his home base in New York and faxing them across the Atlantic, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“He didn’t have any sense of story, or cause and effect,” Gilroy complained to the New Yorker about Liman. “My scripts are very, very difficult to f–k with,” yet somehow, in his opinion, Liman was managing to do so.

Liman, in turn, called Gilroy “arrogant.”

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15. The production seemingly headed off the rails after producer Richard Gladstein had to return to the U.S. due to a family emergency, Universal sent veteran producer Frank Marshall to Paris to supervise.

According to the Wall Street Journal, he proceeded to butt heads with Liman over the director’s vision for Bourne’s final showdown with another relentless assassin, The Professor, played by Clive Owen. Liman pictured it going down at a farmhouse—which, as Marshall pointed out, wasn’t readily available in downtown Paris. But in the end Marshall arranged for the funds and the time to get the crew to a more pastoral setting, as well as transport them back to the city, which also entailed further tweaks to the script.

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16. The day after filming at the farmhouse, Liman woke up and realized he’d missed a shot that, to him, was essential.

The studio basically told him, tough s–t.

“I was about to cry,” Liman remembered to Variety in 2008. 

But, longtime friend and colleague Avram Ludwig told New York, “No is never no for Doug. He’s not confrontational. He goes around.” Meaning, Liman—who was serving as his own camera operator anyway—went ahead and shot four minutes of new film anyway.

“That was the huge epic screaming fight,” Liman said, “the biggest screaming fight on the set ever.”

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17. The tumult on set didn’t escape the discerning eye of Brian Cox, who was tapped to play CIA Deputy Director Ward Abbott and reprised the role in The Bourne Supremacy.

In his 2022 memoir Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, the Succession star—who’s had plenty to say about co-star Jeremy Strong‘s intense on-set method—recalls getting the call about the part from Liman while he was on location at the Palace of Versailles shooting The Affair of the Necklace. 

“[It] goes without saying that I signed up” and “I have to say, I had a great time doing it,” Cox writes. “Chris Cooper [who played the nefarious head of the black ops Treadstone project] I loved. Matt Damon too. The director, Doug, well, he remained a somewhat, let’s just say, ‘eccentric’ figure. I wouldn’t say he was self-sabotaging, exactly, just that he would tend to get a bee in his bonnet about something and be unwilling to let it go. He was great with visuals, although not so great with narrative.”

The scene toward the end where Bourne jumps off the stairwell “and uses the corpse of a baddie to break his fall,” the Scottish actor recalls, “that was Doug, all Doug. The trouble was that I don’t think he really saw eye to eye with some of the high-ups and ended up taking an executive producer credit for the sequel.”

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18. Suffice it to say, the production was characterized at the time as chaotic and troubled, though going an estimated $8 million over the original budget of $52 million and having two extra weeks tacked onto the shooting schedule sounds almost quaint nowadays.

The Bourne Identity was originally slated for a September 2001 release, but ended up being pushed to February 2002—and then May 31, 2002, to allow Liman time to return to Paris to shoot new footage. The movie was then bumped two more weeks, to June 14, which coincidentally stopped it from sharing a release date with The Sum of All Fears, featuring Ben Affleck‘s turn as Tom Clancy-created CIA hero Jack Ryan.

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19. That staircase scene was what Liman took the extra time to go back to Paris to shoot, test audiences having signaled that the end of the film needed more action.

Liman admitted to the Wall Street Journal that his “point of biggest paranoia” was that the studio would demand over-the-top or otherwise splashy-for-splashiness’s sake action for Bourne that wasn’t organic to the character. 

“I feared it would undermine all of the work I had put into the film,” he said.

20th Century Fox

20. “The word on Bourne was that it was supposed to be a turkey,” Damon recalled to GQ in 2012. “It’s very rare that a movie comes out a year late, has four rounds of reshoots, and it’s good.”

Not to mention, The Bourne Identity was a huge hit, grossing more than $214 million worldwide. But Universal never entertained the thought of having Liman back to direct the sequel(s) it was already planning.

“I lost my baby,” he lamented to New York.

He was, however, credited as an executive producer on all the rest of the Bourne films except for 2012’s The Bourne Legacy starring Jeremy Renner, back when Damon thought he was done with the franchise. But in the meantime, it was unclear what, exactly, Liman was going to direct next.

As fate would have it, Brad Pitt had signed on to do Mr. and Mrs. Smith for 20th Century Fox. Following the hullabaloo over on the Bourne shoot, the actor was told he could have his pick of directors—except for Doug Liman.

“So he brought it to me,” the filmmaker told New York.

After that, too, was a big success, Damon said of Liman, “He’s four for four.” And, referring to how he himself was coming off a few clunkers before their collaboration, the actor added, “He saved my career with Bourne.”

In 2008, Marc Shmuger, who’d since become chairman of Universal Pictures, told Variety, “He has a chaotic and at times brilliant mind. For many involved with Doug on Bourne, the experience was too painful to contemplate ever doing it again. But he helped to create a signature identity for Bourne. I would work with him again on the right project.”

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