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35 Things We Learned from ‘The Bourne Identity’ Commentary

Before he bought a zoo, Matt Damon had a penchant for throwing elbows and knees.
Bourne Identity
By  · Published on December 15th, 2011

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, we go deep undercover with spies, political intrigue, and lots of cardio while listening to Doug Liman’s commentary on The Bourne Identity.

Before he bought a zoo, Matt Damon had a penchant for throwing elbows and knees. Also driving a tiny little car through narrow European streets trying to get away from bad guys like Clive Owen. I’m talking, of course, of The Bourne Identity, the first of a trilogy that brought about a new era of action film, one that used the shaky-cam like familiar handgun in the director’s pant pocket.

The director of the first Bourne film was Doug Liman, not Paul Greengrass, as so many viewers mistakenly believe. Greengrass took duties on Supremacy and Ultimatum, but this first go-around was all Doug Liman, the director who also brought us the very cool style of films like Swingers, Go, and Jumper. Okay, you can bypass Jumper. Liman takes solo duties on the commentary track for The Bourne Identity, so let’s delve into what exactly he had to say about this film in 3…2…

The Bourne Identity (2002)

Commentators: Doug Liman (director, producer), lots of European class and energy

  1. Against the advice of his sound mixers, Liman chose to take out the classic Universal music over the opening logo, and instead includes ambient sounds from the film. The mixers told Liman the music over the logo was generally a cue to the audience to “shut up”, but Liman went against their input. As he notes, they were right. Evidently the audiences Liman saw the film with for the first time talked over the beginning of the film, and nary a 9mm Beretta was in reach. That bit about the gun was just my interjection. It’s pretty much my typical fantasy about how I’d take out noisy movie goers. Seriously, though, people. Shut up.
  2. The film didn’t have it in the budget to shoot the opening scene in a tank, so production set up in Imperia, Italy with boats tied to docks and rain machines. The storm as well as the underwater shot of Jason Bourne adrift at sea were added in using CGI. Likewise, the interiors of the boat were built in a warehouse and put on a gimbal.
  3. Liman notes how Matt Damon got into shape to play the titular character. Liman calls it the “no pizza, no beer, nothing fun to eat” diet. Evidently Damon ate white meat chicken and boxed and trained every day for four months. Liman mentions he intended to get into shape with Damon as well as actress Franka Potente but only lasted through one workout. Sounds like the P90X. I only say that because I made it through about 10 minutes of that workout once and would have tortured puppies to make it stop. Enough about me.
  4. In the original Robert Ludlum novel, the Swiss bank account information was on a piece of microfilm in Bourne’s hip. Even though Liman didn’t want The Bourne Identity to be full of James Bond-esque gadgets, he felt it necessary to update this particular element, particularly since, as he notes, most of the people listening to this commentary track have probably never even used a microfiche machine. Truth.
  5. Liman first read Ludlum’s novel in high school and then again while filming Swingers. It was at this time he felt it would make a good movie, and, due to the success that came with Swingers, he was asked what film he would like to do next. The director brought up that he wanted to do The Bourne Identity. It took two years to secure the rights to the novel, a year finalizing a script, and two years for production.
  6. The name Treadstone is something found in Ludlum’s novel, but what it ends up being is completely different. Liman based the idea of Treadstone in the film on his father’s autobiography, “Lawyer: A Life of Counsel and Controversy”. Liman’s father was Arthur L. Liman, the chief counsel during the Iran-Contra hearings who interrogated Oliver North. Likewise, Liman mentions he injected a lot of Oliver North’s character into Conklin, the character Chris Cooper plays in the film.
  7. It was editor Saar Klein’s idea to have Bourne disappear early in the film, giving the indication of his abilities. The scene where he is walking along the street by the dock and disappearing as a taxi drives past was not done in post. It was a trick all done in camera. Like most good disappearing acts, it doesn’t need computers, so good on ya’, Doug Liman and Saar Klein.
  8. The shot of Bourne looking down a snowy street at night was originally supposed to have a complete blanket of snow. However, just before shooting, Liman walked down the street, and the footsteps ended up in the frame. Liman mentions there was no one he could get mad at, since it was his mistake. So, remember when I gave you that “good on ya'”? I take it back. Bad Doug Liman. Bad.
  9. “And this is Adewale I’m not even going to try to pronounce his last name,” says Liman when Mr. Eko from “Lost” shows up. Yeah, you and seven billion other people on the planet, Doug. He does mention Mr. Eko is an incredibly gifted actor. That, too, is difficult to argue with.
  10. Liman notes the great actors in the film like Brian Cox and Chris Cooper and mentions one of the many advantages of working on a larger budget film. When previously working on films, when he shot Swingers and Go, for instance, he would have to say, “Let’s get someone like Chris Cooper or Brian Cox.” With The Bourne Identity, he began the same way with his casting director, Joseph Middleton. Middleton responded with, “Why don’t we just get Chris Cooper and Brian Cox?”. The same went with production designer, Dan Weil. Liman said he wanted to get someone like the designer who did La Femme Nikita and was answered with, “Why don’t you just get that same person?”.
  11. Liman mentions the French crew he worked with and how many of them had the best interests of making a good film. Whenever he would present them with something, he would become inundated with ideas. Liman even menions best boy grip Jean-Pierre Deschamps, gaffer Mikael Monod, and first assistant director Luc Etienne by name because of how much they contributed and their passion for making the best film they could. This is reason #423 why Europeans make better films. Period.
  12. The director brings up the casting of Franka Potente. Liman didn’t want someone American audiences were very familiar with, and he was very impressed by Potente from Run Lola Run, as we all were. He likens the story to Wizard of Oz, how Bourne is trying to get home and, upon meeting Marie, who Potente plays, realizes he was home all along. Awwwwwwwwww.
  13. Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww. I’m not counting this as an item learned, but the sentimentality just had to seep through to another line.
  14. Liman doesn’t like the phrase “thinking man’s action movie”. He does note that he wanted The Bourne Identity to be a character-driven action movie and to show how Bourne uses brains over brawn in any given situation and how when scenes are building in intensity, Bourne gets calmer. Liman mentions spending weeks with his writers and coming up with ideas that Bourne calculates within a matter of seconds. He also wanted to show how nonchalant Bourne was with his abilities, how when he finds a way down the side of a building he doesn’t turn back to reflect on what he’s just done but, instead, keeps moving forward.
  15. The scenes in Zurich were actually filmed in Prague in January, which, as Liman notes, is extremely cold. Matt Damon’s wardrobe was conceived in Paris, so when they got to shooting his scenes in Prague, he was extremely cold in just a sweater. Much of the exchange between he and Potente in the alley had to be ADRed, since his voice was so slurred from the extreme temperature. This could explain so much.
  16. The production went through three cameras filming the scene between Damon and Potente in her car. The cameras were mounted outside, and, because of the extreme cold, the cameras simply stopped working. This sounds familiar. Maybe shooting on a nice, warm soundstage and adding in CG snow later isn’t such a bad thing. Never mind. Scratch that. I didn’t even say it.
  17. As we all know, PG-13 films are allowed to drop the f-bomb once or twice. Liman notes there were several scenes where the f-word would have helped one of the actors get into the moment. At first, he had given it to Potente but later realized it should be Damon who drops it during the scene in the car. Liman also mentions how strange it is not to see people smoking in the film, especially coming from the director of Swingers. “It’s actually because of Swingers I started to feel that as a film maker I needed to take a little responsibility in terms of the kinds of role models I’d be putting forward.” Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww. Okay, I’m done with that. Liman does mention pretty much everyone on set was smoking during production. Hey, it’s Europe. They don’t have cancer there, right? Part of that universal health program?
  18. Liman didn’t want to shoot Paris the way most American films shoot Paris only showing the most beautiful parts and making sure to include all the familiar landmarks the city has to offer. The scene with Bourne and Marie on the banks of the Seine is the only moment Liman “shows us we’re in Paris” as he states. You can see the Notre Dame Cathedral in the background of this shot. The rest of the movie he wanted to shoot the city from the viewpoint of a local, not a tourist. This was done to add to the authenticity of the film.
  19. “When you speak French, if there’s something not understood, you’re the one not understanding it, and you know it, whereas, if you speak English, out of a sign of respect they’ll mostly say, ‘Yes’ like they understood, and maybe they didn’t.” – Liman explaining his reasons for speaking French while filming with the European crew. Liman also mentions Damon’s way of perfecting his accents as Bourne jumps between different languages throughout the film. Damon would listen to recordings in his trailer until he had the accent down perfect before shooting a scene. Just like that great Bawston accent he pulled off in Good Will Hunting. Hahaha. Apples.
  20. Bourne’s apartment in Paris was, for the most part, shot in a real apartment in the city. Again, Liman brings up the Wizard of Oz comparison, how it was important to give Bourne a “false home” in the process of finding his real one. The apartment when the fight breaks out was a warehouse soundstage. I don’t like fighting in my real apartment, either. Too many delicate DVDs could get shattered in the process.
  21. Nicky Naude, who plays the assassin Castel, was cast very specifically. Since Damon was doing all of his own stunts, and to give the two assassins similar fighting styles, Liman needed to cast the person who trained Damon in his fighting skill to play the role against him. It was important for the person playing this role to be both an actor and a stunt person.
  22. Regarding the fight itself, the technique both men are using is Kali, a Filipino style of martial arts. Damon and Liman chose Kali, because they liked how efficient of a style it is and how it uses the opponents energy against them. In fact, the method behind the fighting style informed much of Damon’s performance even outside fighting scenes. They felt this best embodied Jason Bourne’s style as a whole. The entire fight was rehearsed over the course of two months, the most rehearsed sequence of the film. The scene was shot in three or four-move sequences, and no stunt doubles are used at all. Again, fights in my apartment use no stunt doubles. Maybe the cat stands in now and again, but, for the most part, it’s all me, baby.
  23. The crew behind the small sequence in the train station consisted of only Matt Damon and Doug Liman so as not to attract attention from the crowd of people there. It didn’t work, and the two had to go around the block a few times in order to lose the people who had recognized Damon. Liman also likes the hand-held style of this sequence and the energy it brings.
  24. Most of the chase scene through Paris was shot by Alexander Witt, the second unit director of photography. Liman would storyboard it with him, and Witt would shoot pieces of the scene here and there during the entirety of the crew’s time in the city. The only shots Liman directed were the interior shots of Damon and Potente. “I’m a big roller coaster fan. I like high adrenaline excitement, but going in a car doing the stuff like the shot you just saw was definitely the scariest thing I’ve ever been through.” Also, regarding the chase scene, Liman didn’t want the city to be empty, as you might see in similar sequences in other movies. He wanted there to be people and other cars crowding the streets to give the chase scene a messier look than what you might find in something like Ronin. Not to disparage the work by John Frankenheimer, God rest his soul.
  25. Liman had a hard time with the scene where Bourne and Marie kiss. The director had to question whether or not this woman would be attracted to someone who has put her through everything Bourne had put her through up to that point. Liman came to terms with it after remembering what drew him to the story in the first place, the idea of what it would be like to meet someone like Jason Bourne who had a dark, mysterious past. “What would you do?” I certainly wouldn’t make out with Matt Damon, Doug, but I see your point.
  26. According to Liman, Jason Bourne was meant to be as stoic as possible, but he also wanted to show little chinks in the character’s emotional armor. He made a point to include scenes about every 20 minutes or so that showed Bourne lose his cool about something that has just happened. The director even went back and reshot a couple of scenes in order to include these moments. The scene between Bourne and Marie after Bourne discovers he is John Michael Kane was one of these reshot scenes.
  27. Liman overshot most of the scenes between Chris Cooper and Brian Cox mostly because of the great material Tony Gilroy had written between the two characters. Luckily and through the work by the film’s editor, most of this footage was able to be used, intercut into later scenes.
  28. Originally, in Tony Gilroy’s script, Bourne saying, “I won’t let that happen” was a tent-pole moment, where the passive character becomes active and begins to hunt instead of flee and defend. However, Damon wouldn’t deliver the line the way it was written. He, as well as Liman, felt it was too derivative, too much like something an action hero would say in a typical action movie. The director and the actor had a fun time sorting out a different way for the character to deliver the line and not have it come off as derivative. I have to go get a drink. I’ll be back. Boom! Nailed it!
  29. The sequence of Bourne chasing The Professor, played by Clive Owen, was shot in an interesting way. Second unit director, Alexander Witt, was shooting all the shots of Owen, while Liman shot all the shots with Damon. The two crews converged in the field just as the characters do in the film.
  30. Liman notes some of the CGI in The Bourne Identity. Much of the film’s CGI was used to add little details throughout the film. The birds that fly up when Bourne shoots the shotgun are digital. The weeds around Owen’s character as he is shot are digital. Potente’s amazing looks are mostly digital. That last part is a complete lie. That’s all Franka.
  31. Liman mentions that the last 30 minutes had to be rewritten. Much of Gilroy’s original ending was shot and revolved around Bourne just showing up at Treadstone to confront Chris Cooper’s Conklin. The last action beat in the film was originally the shoot-out at the farmhouse between Damon and Owen. Also, Gilroy’s original ending involved a huge fire in Julia Stiles’ Nicolette’s office, but Universal didn’t have confidence enough in Liman to shoot this sequence given how elaborate the scene was and ho much time was left in the shooting schedule. After a preview of the film, Universal’s head of marketing, Mark Shmuger, mentioned there should be another action scene at the end. Essentially, the last 30 minutes of the film had to be reshot in 10 days over 2 different countries to achieve this new ending.
  32. Usually a risk-taker, Liman says he played it safe in the moment where Bourne climbs up the side of the Treadstone building. This was originally intended to just be a wide shot with Bourne climbing the wall in the background. Without time to test screen the film and not being completely sure if the audience would see it, Liman decided to include a small cut-in of a closeup on Bourne mid-climb.
  33. The sequence where Bourne confronts Conklin is the only moment that includes parts of the original ending. It couldn’t be completely reshot, as they were unable to get Julia Stiles back to film it. The scene as it stands is a combination of parts of the original ending edited with sections that were reshot with Damon and Cooper.
  34. Parts of the flashback to the failed hit on the boat were shot using crew members of the NV White Knight as the actual shooting crew. The rest of the crew had already gone home after most of the flashback had been shot. The POV shot of Bourne walking out of the ship was done by Liman with a camera on his shoulder. To simulate Bourne being shot, Liman had the ship’s captain’s wife hit him in the back. Being a rather strong, Greek woman, the blow knocked Liman down. Those Greek women sure know how to land a punch. You try taking a kidney shot from Nia Vardalos if you don’t believe it. That can’t be fun.
  35. Little bit of movie magic revealed here. The stairwell at the end action sequence was no stairwell at all. They had about a half a flight of actual stairs. The rest was created by visual effects supervisor Peter Donen and his team.
  36. Liman brings up again how the Bourne character didn’t have a Q to give him all kinds of gadgets nor did the director want the character to be like MacGyver. Liman notes this was part of the fun in creating scenes like the one in the stairwell, where they had to come up with a way for Bourne to get out of his situations using only what he had right there in the moment, in this case, a dead body that could be used as a cushion. Because dead bodies make the best cushions, you know?
  37. Cue Moby.

Best in Commentary

“Since this film is about, up until this point, Jason Bourne has been trying to unravel his past, because he wants to go home. He feels like unraveling his past is the key to going home, and this the moment in that journey where he decides he doesn’t want to know anything more about his past, and he doesn’t want to go home to that place anymore. Can you just leave your past behind? They’re gonna find out in the morning that you can’t leave your past behind, because it’ll come and find you.”

“With Bourne I wanted to see if it was possible to be a little bit more sophisticated with the camera work but still keep that energy.”

“I have a very short attention span.”

Final Thoughts

This commentary track for The Bourne Identity provides a great combination of anecdotes, thematic elements the director wanted to include in the film, and bits about the process of getting the film made from script to screen. Unlike last week’s edition, Doug Liman finds a way of mentioning so many people who contributed to the completion of the film, but his commentary doesn’t begin and end there. He goes on to give great detail about what these individual people brought to the table. In fact, as I write this conclusion, the film’s end credits are playing, and Liman is running off name after name of people he forgot to include earlier. That’s a great way of doing such a thing.

Yes, there are sections throughout the commentary where Liman’s audio drops out, sometimes for minutes at a time, but given how much information he provides when he is talking, as well as the fact that he’s working alone here, it’s easy to forgive these moments. And, yes, he’s still throwing out everyone’s complete name. Except for Mr Ecko. He’s just mentioned as Adewale. Still can’t blame him.

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