Thursday, April 10, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: Tone Maintenance in The Bourne Identity

Given the intensely naturalistic vibe created by new director Paul Greengrass for this movie’s two sequels, it’s tempting to misremember this first one as the slick Hollywood cheesy one, but that’s far from the case. Director Doug Liman achieves an astonishing degree of realism that was unprecedented for its time: Damon has no stunt double whatsoever, it’s really him in those fights, in real European cities, with real snow falling. In those cities, our heroes drive a realistic car though normal streets, not landmarks—There are no “set pieces” but just believable action on real locations.
Liman makes it clear in his in-depth DVD commentary that he was very aware how important it was to maintain this naturalistic mood because it allowed him to get out from under the audience’s genre expectations:
  • “The second you do something that doesn’t feel authentic, then it all falls apart because they’ll say ‘if it’s not authentic, then give us a lot more explosions.’”
He knows that his audience has been hardwired to expect to see Bourne blow up a hidden lair atop the Eiffel Tower, and he’s got to carefully carve out a new headspace, taking our hand and walking us into a new world of realism, all the while gently re-assuring us, “No, it’s okay, this can be good too, just take it seriously.”

He had to stage manage hundreds of little touches to get us stop asking the wrong question (What’s the coolest thing that could happen?’) and start asking the right one (What would I do in this situation?) Gradually, we relax into the movie’s street-level rhythms and realize, “Oh, this can actually be more exciting if it’s realistic!”

Throughout his commentary, Liman points out many places where he had to contravene the normal way of making spy movies: For instance, in Conklin’s operations room at Langley, it was important that the design reflect the off-the-books ad-hoc nature of the operation, so instead of the usual wall of screens “ops room” he had an ungainly assemblage of desks and hand-me-down computers, implying that it had grown from a one-desk operation and each new one had been shoe-horned in. Nobody says this, of course, and we don’t consciously think it, but we’ve been in rooms like that before and we subconsciously know what sort of operations would be run there.

Okay, since the deviations multiplied, we’ll have some casefiles spill over into next week...There’s a lot to learn from this movie!


j.s. said...

Greengrass always gave due credit to Liman for forging the realistic tone that he built on. I remember him saying something about getting some attention for his own work from Hollywood after BLOODY SUNDAY, going to see the first Bourne film with his wife, coming saying "I don't know if I could make a Hollywood film, but I'd love to make one like that!"

To be really fair, though, you have to go all the way back to Le Carre's book and Martin Ritt's film of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, which dirtied up and demythologized espionage with authentic tradecraft and psychology in a way that audiences had never seen before. BOURNE simply does the same thing to the spy/action subgenre. And why not mention Freidkin again -- THE BOURNE IDENTITY is kind of like THE FRENCH CONNECTION of spy movies.

One thing about those off-the-shelf screens, though, is that they got pretty cheap pretty fast over the course of the series. And audiences also grew used to seeing command centers at CENTCOM bases all over the Middle East, where even the smaller outposts had a pretty sophisticated array of monitors. So in the three later films what reads as authentic, if you compare it to the sets in the first one, actually feels almost too glossy and expensive without its up to the minute context.

Joel W. said...

The naturalistic background, etc. are key to making some of Bourne's resourcefulness not feel cheap. In many movies, tearing a map of a wall might be too convenient ("the writer only put the map there so the hero could take it!"). But with the Bourne Identity we never think that. Bourne is in the real world -- he's in OUR world. We see a real building. Real fire escapes. Real evacuation plans. We've all seen those on hallway walls. "Hey! Isn't this Bourne guy pretty smart for taking that map? I would've never thought of that!". As j.s. said a few posts ago, this is a brilliant moment for the film.

It also doesn't hurt that much of Bourne's resourcefulness just reinforces the naturalism that much more (the map is both a tool for Bourne and a naturalism booster in and of itself). But it wouldn't work in the first place without the natural settings/props to establish such a tone beforehand.