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Agents, Action, Adventure, Avid: John Gilroy Edits ‘The Bourne Legacy’

Fans of the Jason Bourne stories are being treated to an expansion of the franchise with the release of The Bourne Legacy. Unlike other franchise restarts, this film moves in a different direction, exploring the greater Bourne world through the introduction of agent Aaron Cross, played by Jeremy Renner (The Avengers, Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol, The Hurt Locker), and Dr. Marta Shearing, played by Rachel Weisz (The Lovely Bones, The Brothers Bloom, The Constant Gardener).

Fortunately for fans of the series, the film was entrusted to Tony Gilroy (Duplicity, Michael Clayton) as writer-director. Gilroy had written the screenplays for the original Bourne trilogy of films. All three Gilroy brothers were involved in making The Bourne Legacy, so to some this might seem like a family project. Dan Gilroy (Real Steel, The Fall, Freejack) co-wrote the screenplay and John Gilroy (Warrior, Salt, Duplicity, Michael Clayton) was the film editor.

A Family Affair
I spoke with John Gilroy as the film was getting its last postproduction touches prior to release. Asked about how the sibling bond affected the editor-director relationship, Gilroy says, “Our father was a writer-director, but he moved us out of Los Angeles to Upstate New York when we were small children. I believe his hope was that none of us would actually end up in the business. I think he was a bit surprised that we all gravitated, in one way or another, to his line of work. Tony has worked with both Danny and me individually before, but this is the first time we’ve all worked together. I think it was a special experience for all of us.”

“As an editor, I work in much the same way with Tony as I do with other directors. I try to understand the vision of the film they’re trying to make, in big ways and small. I think editors in general are probably pretty good listeners. If we can truly understand a director’s vision on a deep level and embrace it, then we have a compass that can navigate us through the editorial process. I’ve certainly known Tony longer than any other director I’ve ever worked with or ever will, so there is undoubtedly a shorthand to that sort of understanding, but essentially the process is the same.”

Keeping It Fresh
The Bourne trilogy picked up several awards and nominations—including a few Oscars—and established a very specific visual style. In fact, these films set the stage for a more believable secret agent—a tone that’s been picked up by others, notably the reboot of the James Bond franchise, starting with the first Daniel Craig version, Casino Royale. With The Bourne Legacy, Tony and Dan Gilroy wanted a fresh approach.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy expands the Bourne universe created by Robert Ludlum with an original story that introduces a new hero (Renner) whose life-or-death stakes have been triggered by the events of the first three films.

John Gilroy continues, “Tony and Danny thought of a way to expand the franchise by focusing on another central character. Aaron Cross is a government agent, but he’s also a completely different character with a completely different set of problems. By accessing the timeline of the previous Bourne stories, this film dovetails nicely to reveal a bigger world. The series has always been grounded in reality, and that’s embraced in the new film as well. The previous films, however, had a very kinetic visual approach that grew over the three, becoming faster by the third film. Tony didn’t want to just mimic that previous visual style. Bourne Legacy is an action picture, and it’s certainly kinetic, but visually, it has its own signature.”

A Fast Production Schedule
The Bourne Legacy involved a tight production and post schedule, with 89 shoot days. Production took place mainly on location and at the Kaufman Astoria Studios soundstages in New York City, with additional location production in Washington, D.C., Canada and the Philippines, among others locales.

Robert Elswit (Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Salt, There Will Be Blood), the director of photography, shot mainly on Super 35mm film, though some digital cameras were in the mix for the visual effects shots. The production wrapped in late February and was in the final phase of post (mix and finishing VFX shots) by the end of June.

John Gilroy at mix stage

John Gilroy discussed the schedule with me. “This was a long shooting schedule and a short post schedule, so that puts some extra pressure on the editorial process. Our director’s cut needed to be farther along than what’s normally expected. Fortunately, the script was a great blueprint, but, as always, you make amendments as you go along. Often, events or actions on the page don’t absolutely need to be on the screen, and they fall away in the process of editing. Writer-directors such as Tony tend to be very good in the cutting room because editing, on some level, is like writing, or perhaps rewriting. The finished film is a bit over two hours long. This is a little longer than the other Bourne films, but we’re introducing new characters and setting the table for a larger story, so that’s to be expected. My first cut was only about 15 to 20 minutes longer at the start. Probably the biggest challenge for me was that the film’s most complicated action sequences were shot in the Philippines at the end of the schedule instead of at the beginning or the middle. There were all sorts of visual effects that had to be delivered, so I had to hone some very complex sequences very quickly.”

From the Moviola to the Digital Age
John Gilroy has seen a number of technology shifts during his career. He explains, “Editors around my age were the last people to begin their careers cutting on Moviolas in the ’90s. The first nonlinear, computer-based system I used was Lightworks when I worked on Billy Madison. A few years later I jumped over to Avid [Media Composer]. Although I’ve thought about trying out other software—like [Apple] Final Cut—in between films, there was never a real need. I’m happy that Avid has been able to keep improving itself over the years with various small innovations.

Jeremy Renner as agent Aaron Cross

“We used several Media Composer systems connected to Unity shared storage. The editorial team, run by first assistant editor Jim Harrison, started with four people and has more than doubled as the film nears its completion. There are hundreds of visual effects shots in this film, all designed to create realism—vehicle effects, guns, explosions and more. [Adobe] After Effects has become an important component of our editorial process these days. We use it a lot to temp certain kinds of visual effects. All of my assistants know After Effects. Of course, on a movie like this, there is an entire visual effects department we work closely with. Hal Couzens and Mike Ellis are our visual effects supervisors, and the final, full-quality visual effects were done primarily by Double Negative in London, as well as a number of additional vendors.”

Sound and sound editing are also important to Gilroy. “I probably address the sonic aspects of the films I work on a little more than other picture editors might. How a scene sounds and how it’s sonically designed is important to me, not just for presentation purposes, but many times it actually helps me better understand a scene or sequence. It’s a bigger part of the movie experience than many people realize. On Bourne Legacy, we are working with a fantastic sound team headed by Per Hallberg, who has sound supervised all the other Bourne films. He and his team are truly top-notch and it’s been a pleasure working with them.”

Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz star in The Bourne Legacy

I asked Gilroy how the preview audiences had received the film. He says, “We’ve had a couple of preview screenings and they were very helpful and reaffirming. This was the big risk, to take a franchise built around one character and then center around a completely new character, under the same banner. Fortunately, the audiences we screened for totally embraced Jeremy Renner and this new concept. It was quite a relief.

“There were no plans for a stereo 3D version. People want a good film, first and foremost,” Gilroy continues. “3D does not guarantee success and not all films are right for 3D. Tony felt strongly that Bourne Legacy was better served in 2D. Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3 is doing the DI, and he was brought in early to the process. We were able to color-time much of our picture at Company 3, even during our preview period, which is not normally the case. The benefit, of course, is that the picture looks so much better so much earlier.”

With a tightly crafted script as a template, The Bourne Legacy wasn’t the type of film that needed to be restructured in the cutting room. Gilroy wrapped up our conversation by describing his approach to the film. “As an editor, you first solve the little nuisances in a scene. Then you step back and solve issues at the scene level, and then finally the whole film. My biggest responsibility was to get everything out of Rachel’s and Jeremy’s performances. They were really fantastic and shined in this film. I just had to make sure I didn’t leave anything on the table!”