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The Hitman Cometh: Behind the scenes of The Bourne Identity

A star aiming for a change of pace. An upstart indie director with a blockbuster in his sights. Here’s how ‘The Bourne Identity’ survived a hair-trigger shoot

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UNIVERSAL/Everett Collection

Doug Liman is a man who loves drama.

Take the director’s meeting with the late Robert Ludlum, the author of the 1980 best-seller The Bourne Identity. Most guys who want to option a book plan a meeting. Liman planned an entrance.

”I flew out to visit Ludlum in Glacier National Park [in Montana],” remembers Liman, who established himself as an indie maverick with 1996’s Swingers and 1999’s Go. ”I had just become a pilot, and it was my first solo flight. I had woefully miscalculated my arrival, so by the time I got there I had the National Guard looking for me. I didn’t understand I had to slow down to cross the Tetons.”

The Tetons would be the smallest obstacle in Liman’s path to turn The Bourne Identity into Universal’s big-budget spy movie starring Matt Damon. Fasten your seat belts — there’s turbulence ahead.

More than three years later, Liman has had a small crash. By announcing last month that filming The Bourne Identity was ”a f—ing nightmare,” and airing his disagreements with the studio over editing, he made it clear that while you can give an indie director $60 million, you can’t make him play by an unspoken rule of big-league moviemaking: The studio puts up, the director shuts up. ”Everyone is so political about what they say,” explains Damon. ”If anybody says anything interesting, it gets picked up immediately.”

Universal, which opens the movie June 14 opposite two other would-be summer blockbusters, MGM’s Windtalkers and Warner Bros.’ Scooby-Doo, apparently isn’t taking any more chances. Interviews with the scruffily handsome, jeans-wearing 35-year-old Liman are being conducted in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, with ”Bourne Identity” exec producer Frank Marshall — clad in a navy blazer — seated right beside him.

On the subject of the “f—ing nightmare” quote, which appeared in the New York Post:

Liman: “I think I said things that were totally out of context…”

Marshall: “…in the moment…”

Liman: “…movies that are worth making are hard…”

Marshall: “…are hard.”

Liman seems genuinely chastened, watching his words and hanging his head like a 5-year-old who’s learned the hard way that calling one’s mother fat at a dinner party isn’t the thing to do — even if it’s true.

If Liman was an unlikely action director, Damon was an unlikelier action hero. Which is what appealed to the actor, who says he took the role of an amnesiac CIA hitman on the run because he wanted to “try an action movie…exactly the way I’d love to do it, with someone who was thinking outside the box. Doug being Doug, this would be an interesting movie.” After meeting with Liman and reading the script by Tony Gilroy — who, at Liman’s insistence, hadn’t looked at the novel on which the film is loosely based, but instead listened to the director’s reworked synopsis — Damon agreed to bulk up and branch out.

Liman’s plan was, from the start, risky. He would shoot in Europe, using only local crewmembers, in order to give the film an international feeling–and, he admits, so he could practice his French. He pushed to cast German actress Franka Potente, of Run Lola Run, as Bourne’s love interest, rather than a better-known American costar. And he substantially decreased the political tensions that inform Ludlum’s novel, the first of a trilogy centered on the character. But when Damon arrived at the Paris location in October 2000, Liman’s attitude was getting more problematic — because while the star was transforming his body, a new screenwriter had been busy transforming the script.

Damon had always felt that The Bourne Identity‘s third act needed work (“It died on the vine,” he says). But David Self (Thirteen Days), with whom Liman worked when Gilroy left to write the ill-fated Russell Crowe-Meg Ryan thriller Proof of Life, had done far more than punch up the ending. “He went to the book and did a page-one rewrite. Every few pages, something blew up,” Damon says, sitting upstairs from Liman and Marshall and smoking Camels. “There was a fight on the subway where the subway derails, and these guys on motorcycles are firing rockets at the moving train. Nothing against the writer, but it was not the movie I agreed to do.”

Adding to the tension was the threat of an actors’ strike and Damon’s commitment to a February start date for Ocean’s Eleven. Gilroy, finished with Proof of Life, flew to the set to get the script back on track. The last-minute rewrites, says Potente, “scared everyone for a moment.” A pivotal 18-page scene at a farmhouse where Bourne faces down an assassin was in the movie, then out, and now back in. (Marshall and Liman decided to move the scene from Paris, where production cost $250,000 a day, to Prague, a relative bargain at $100,000 a day.) Meanwhile Liman was shooting action sequences with handheld rather than conventional dollying cameras, and expressing a certain lack of tact with the studio. Says a source close to the production, “They gave $60 million…and they wanted to be part of the decisions — hardly an unreasonable thing. But he was pretty flippant about the whole thing.”

“At the end of the day, the less money you have the easier it is to make a movie,” Liman told EW in an earlier interview. “The way I see it, the expensive people who get hired when you have money are the fancy people who tell you what you can’t do.”

By the time production wrapped in February 2001, the filmmakers were fairly sure the third act–in which Bourne quietly resolved his situation — still wasn’t working. Last summer, test audiences agreed. “I had thought there was an opportunity to surprise audiences and not have a piece of action at the end,” Liman says, “and that it would be more original, but…well, it was more original. But audiences are never wrong…. I mean it!”

In January 2002, with an extra $8 million from the studio and yet another ending written by Gilroy, the cast and crew reassembled in Paris for a week of additional photography. “If you analyze the film from a strictly film-school theoretical level,” says Liman, “it’s where the movie should always have gone.”

If Liman adapted to the idea of studio filmmaking faster than he did to studio politics, the director now seems contrite about the latter. “I think that I learned a studio system prefers a sort of professionalism from the director,” he says slowly. But, he adds, “People don’t talk about how hard it is to make a movie. Nobody does. Ever. Movies aren’t glamorous. When we were making Go, we’re scouting locations in these alleys in downtown L.A. that are covered in human feces, and we’re sitting there discussing, ‘Do you steam it off? Do you wash it off?’ And I’m thinking, ‘This is the reality of making a movie.'”

Which may explain why, even after all the Sturm und Drang, Liman is flirting with the idea of directing a sequel. Damon, for one, would be on board. “If Tony wrote the script and we got everybody together again, I would do it,” says the actor. “The stuff that goes against convention is why I wanted to do it in the first place. And why I’d do it again.”