Of all the areas on the great big globe where The Bourne Legacy was filmed, there is one place that sticks out in filmmaker Tony Gilroy’s memory — Kananaskis Country.
“We went there three times,” the acclaimed writer and director says, reminiscing about filming the opening scenes in Alberta’s Rockies late last year. “It was always kind of shocking how you expected to see a lot more big animals. (I saw) a lot of tracks, but I never saw a bear.”
Still, as much as the screenwriter behind the Bourne trilogy and auteur of the Oscar-nominated hit Michael Clayton had hoped to spot a grizzly in the wild, his disappointment was likely compensated by many fortunate views of the area’s sublime beauty from the seat of a whirring helicopter.
In the film, Kananaskis actually plays almost as big a role as the actors by sitting in for the Alaskan Yukon. Like the actors, Gilroy even cast the location, in a sense, by auditioning the Alberta landscape — scouting it as he was still putting the script together.
“When you’re a young writer, you’re writing all the time and you’re trying to sell stuff, (but) no one’s going to fly you to wherever you’re working on,” says Gilroy about how those trips informed the screenplay. “The idea of arbitrarily writing a sequence to a set that doesn’t exist — I don’t think I’ll ever do it ever again.”
Easy to say when you’ve got a track record like Gilroy. Born into showbiz royalty under Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Frank D. Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses), the New York-based filmmaker made his cinematic debut with another film that was based in Alberta — the 1988 Winter Olympics-set drama The Cutting Edge.
But soon he found his niche, penning such provocative thrillers as The Devil’s Advocate, Proof of Life and the Bourne trilogy, the latter of which began with 2002’s The Bourne Identity. It was his directorial debut with Michael Clayton, however, that would score the filmmaker two Oscar nominations in 2008 — for writing and for directing the eco-thriller about a lawyer who has a crisis of conscience and rises up against a giant chemical corporation.
“I’m not a fan of authority, I think,” says Gilroy. “Politically, I’m not a big fan of a lack of responsibility.... People (should be) called to own what they do. I think the development of corporations leads to a lot of absentee landlordism and I don’t think that’s healthy for anything — even corporations, quite honestly.”
Those strong anti-authority themes are present in the Bourne franchise as well. Playing off the trilogy starring Matt Damon, this latest Bourne instalment imagines a broader world than that conceived by novelist Robert Ludlum. Instead, Gilroy has created a new international operative (Jeremy Renner) who turns against the government and the program he’s designed to serve when it becomes a liability due to Jason Bourne’s exposure at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum.
“I can’t imagine sitting down and staring at a blank piece of paper and saying I want to write something about how I feel about institutions or how I feel about anything really. You can’t start from an issue or an ideological point of view,” says Gilroy before noting the coincidental themes in his work. “That’s just a residue that’s in the back of my mind. You don’t ever start that way. You don’t ever think that way when you’re writing it.”
That may be true, but after 20 years of experience Gilroy’s subtext must be second nature by now — perhaps unlike the adaptability it takes to shoot a film like The Bourne Legacy in Kananaskis.
“Making a movie like this is physically demanding — no more so than what we did up in Kananaskis because we really had no margin of error... chasing weather, fighting cold, outside every day,” says Gilroy, remembering those cold December days in the Rockies. “(Still) if you’re going to spend a lot of time in helicopters, that’s about the coolest place on the planet you could possibly do it.”