Moviehole catches up with Matt Damon in Melbourne


To talk about “The Bourne Ultimatum” and what’s ahead

Matt Damon won’t be drawn into any schoolyard-style speculation about the outcome of a stoush between amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne, the character the actor has played in three critically and commercially successful blockbusters, and that other international man of mystery, James Bond. However, he does show a little curiosity when considering a barney between himself and the latest incarnation of 007, Daniel Craig (despite Craig’s brick-shithouse build, I get the feeling Damon could hold his own in a skirmish), and happily holds forth on the indestructibility of ‘’Die Hard’’’s Bruce Willis – “John McClane just won’t die,” he laughs. “You can’t bet against John McClane.” But Damon’s idea of “a good celebrity deathmatch” would be pitting every actor who has ever played James Bond up against himself and Richard Chamberlain, who played Jason Bourne in a 1988 television adaptation of ‘’The Bourne Identity’’, the first novel in Robert Ludlum’s series of Bourne adventures.

It kind of goes without saying that there’s a world of difference between Chamberlain’s secret-agent man and Damon’s character – indeed, Damon is quick to admit that the creative team behind the three Bourne movies have utilised the titles of ‘’The Bourne Identity’’, ‘’The Bourne Supremacy’’ and now ‘’The Bourne Ultimatum ‘’but little more than that. In place of Ludlum’s Cold War intrigue, the films present a shadowy global network where your supposed mentors and allies may be your most dangerous enemy. Striding through it all is Bourne, a government-trained killing machine who has lost his memory but retained his lethal skills, and the trilogy of films follows him as he tries to remember the man he once was, atone for the sins of his past and, in ‘’Ultimatum,’’ confront the people who created him.

This third movie in the series – directed by Paul Greengrass, who also helmed ‘’Supremacy ‘’- rounds out the Bourne saga in a satisfying manner, although it’s savvy enough to leave things open-ended enough for a fourth instalment (and given the success ‘’Ultimatum ‘’has enjoyed at the American box office, taking in close to $US150 million in its first few weeks, one can imagine the studio will be pushing for one). Damon, however, has been candid about his desire not to outstay his welcome in any of his franchises – he also appeared in the recent ‘’Ocean’s Thirteen’’, another ‘threequel’ – and says that while he wouldn’t immediately rule out a fourth Bourne movie, it feels like the series has reached a natural conclusion.

“We set out to tell a story about this guy’s quest for identity, and we were almost out of story by the third one,” he says. “We really got everything in there we possibly could, and it was just enough for a two-hour movie. I mean, never say never, but it would certainly have to go in a completely new direction. I mean, what is the story [of a fourth Bourne movie]? The whole internal propulsive mechanism that drives this character is that he has these flashbacks and he’s trying to figure out who he is. Who does he then become? Does he start going on mission for the government? Because he’s the anti-government guy! Maybe if we took 10 years off and there was a great script and Paul wanted to direct it…that’s why I want to leave the door open, because if Paul said ‘I have a way to do it’, then I would do it.”

Damon acknowledges that Greengrass has both adhered to and enhanced the stylistic and thematic template established by ‘’Bourne Identity’’ director Doug Liman, but he believes each of the Bourne movies can stand alone. “I think if you looked back at these films in 20 years, you’d be able to tell which year each one of them was made,” says Damon. With ‘’Ultimatum’’’s images of people’s heads covered by black hoods, the torture technique known as ‘waterboarding’ and execution without due process, he says that “this is very much an ‘07 movie”. It even culminates with a character, misled by neo-conservative forces into fighting a war, turning his back on the machinery that built him. “I think it’s all a very accurate reflection of the mood and the attitude in American right now,” says Damon.

The actor shot a number of movies – including starring roles in Martin Scorsese’s ‘’The Departed’’ and Robert De Niro’s ‘’The Good Shepherd’’ – between making Supremacy and Ultimatum, and he cops to rewatching the first two Bourne films as research. “But what’s good about doing a role again is that you really remember what worked and what didn’t when getting ready,” he says. “When I have these blocks of time to research, I just throw everything at the wall and see what’s going to stick – I’ll meet with people or take up a new sport and whatever it is, it’s all going towards getting something that works in creating the character. There’s method to it but it’s all a little haphazard, so going back to a role is a lot easier because my time is much better spent.”

Recreating Bourne wasn’t especially difficult for Damon. “Clearly I borrowed heavily from Richard Chamberlain,” he laughs. And he believes it was similarly easy for Greengrass to slip back into the Bourne aesthetic. “Any director is going to have their own personality and their own style come out in their film,” he says. “Paul loved Doug’s movie, and they share a similar sensibility. So I think he definitely used that as a guide – you can’t inherit a story like that and take it in a different direction right off the bat – but I think Paul definitely made it his own with the second film and then with this one he’s refined it.”

Damon’s respect for Greengrass, a former journalist who has brought a combination of searing realism and technical skill to films such as ‘’Bloody Sunday’’ and ‘’United 93’’, is clearly evident – he’s eager to work with him as much as possible. “In every single project he has, I will be the first person in line to read it or to try and worm my way into it if I can,” he says. “I think he brings out the best in all his actors. ‘’United 93 was just incredible, and I thought the same of ‘Bloody Sunday’. He’s a major director, and he’s going to be around for a long time. He’s just a great storyteller. We were sitting in Deauville a few years ago on the Bourne Supremacy tour, doing a press conference, and we were by the pool and he started to talk about United 93. He literally laid out the film, which was incredible, and he later sent me a document which was his idea of how the film would be, and it was exactly how the film turned out. So he’s got this incredible ability to tell a story. He’s just one of these great storytellers who can spin a yarn for you that can leave you totally captivated, and he can translate that visually. I think there’ll be a lot more great movies coming from Paul, and I hope that I’m in them.”

Unfortunately, a scheduling conflict exacerbated by the upcoming strike within the Hollywood film industry has forced Damon to pull out of Greengrass’s next project, the Iraq War drama ‘’Imperial Life in the Emerald City’’. Instead, the actor will reunite with ‘’Ocean’s Eleven’’,’’ Twelve’’ and ‘’Thirteen’’ director Steven Soderbergh on the whistle-blower biopic ‘’The Informant’’. While it’s another lead role for Damon, it’s not necessarily the kind of star vehicle that draws plenty of attention. He doesn’t mind a bit.

“The role is usually the last thing I look at,” he says. “I’m always looking at the director and the script first. What a lot of people think are virtuoso performances are oftentimes just parlour tricks and not really that challenging. To me, The Good Shepherd was unbelievably challenging – frame after frame of stillness and submerged anguish and all that stuff that’s underneath everything. I don’t mind that it was a very interior performance – I actually like performances like that. Creatively, that was a really fulfilling performance for me, and to work that closely with De Niro for months on end, to listen to him and learn about acting from him, right from the horse’s mouth…I can’t top that.”

The Bourne Ultimatum opens in cinemas August 30.