Tony Gilroy/Photo © Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures
Screenwriters may not have had much success in boosting their percentage of a film’s gross through highly publicized threatened “strikes,” where they were captured chanting slogans of injustice even as many of them drove to the demonstrations from their state-of-the-art writers garrets in Malibu. They still essentially serve at the pleasure of the director, the most generous of whom offer glancing acknowledgment of the writer’s contribution and only occasionally invite them to visit the set and watch their ideas set in motion.
The archetype of the ink-stained wretch, the most undervalued creative mind behind any piece of entertainment, has been cemented into the pop culture firmament, several rows down from the rock star director and the fat cat producer. It may not be fair, given that the screenwriter should get hardship pay just for facing the blank page, a highly specialized skill requiring an Olympiad’s (mental) muscle and finesse under pressure. But the screenwriter’s position in Hollywood’s pecking order is as entrenched as the list of unrecognizable production company logos that flash on the screen before any pricy blockbuster. The unfortunate truth is that in this system that has valued showmanship over substance, writers, with their genetic predisposition to various forms of self- (insert any one of the following: loathing, pity, criticism, seriousness), have never stood much of a chance of having their (vision) — much less their will — win out over the more persuasive powers of the producers, studios, and stars.
Until now, thanks to Tony Gilroy. The writer-turned-director waged and won a hard-fought battle for full creative control of the Bourne franchise, a series credited with wresting the action movie from the realm of cartoonish blockheads saving the world with an arsenal of fireballs and feisty one-liners. Up until “The Bourne Legacy,” the last installment of Robert Ludlum’s wildly popular espionage series, Bourne’s success had been attributed to its star, Matt Damon, and directors, Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass, who had been exalted for pioneering a new brand of thinking person’s blockbuster.
However, throughout the decade since “The Bourne Identity” introduced moviegoers to the amnesiac special forces assassin, Gilroy has remained the franchise’s most consistent and clutch behind-the-scenes player, infusing each adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s cerebral bestsellers with intricate geopolitical puzzles, moral ambiguity, and the tense existential angst of a hunted hero continually discovering his own capacity to survive at any cost.
There is an argument to be made that Gilroy has been the series’ silent auteur, the man behind the curtain of a franchise that has seen its directors and stars come and go (though not always of their own volition). Doug Liman moved on after presiding over a chaotic production and incoherent first cut of “The Bourne Identity,” rescued in post under the guidance of Universal’s savvy then-studio chief, Stacey Snider. When that film became a massive hit, he received a hero’s welcome onto the A List and a gig directing “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” Paul Greengrass brought a down-and-dirty verite aesthetic to “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “The Bourne Supremacy,” cementing the series’ reputation as an escapist alternative to Michael Bay-style bikinis and bombs. However, when Universal began developing “Legacy” without consulting Greengrass, the director walked away from the project and Damon followed him out the door.
Enter: Tony Gilroy, the guy who’s been there all along. What’s most significant about Gilroy’s migration to the director’s chair is how seldom this kind of seemingly natural evolution occurs on big studio tent-poles. But think about it: There was never any mention of Steve Kloves stepping behind the camera on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” part one or two, even though he claimed sole screenplay credit on the most successful movie franchise of all time. Likewise, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio weren’t in line to co-captain the fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” installment when director Rob Marshall jumped ship after “On Stranger Tides.” Granted, Gilroy had already established his filmmaking chops on smaller dramas like “Michael Clayton” and “Duplicity,” but he was far from a slam dunk given his lack of any experience overseeing the kind of action set pieces that will make or break this long-awaited sequel.
If Gilroy’s vision for “The Bourne Legacy” achieves anything near the critical and commercial success of its predecessors — and all indicators say that it will — his achievement will likely impact far more than his own standing among Hollywood’s top filmmakers and extend to his fellow screenwriters toiling in relative (but well-paid) anonymity. Now that’s a legacy worth fighting for.
What screenwriters would you most like to see take the reigns of a big studio blockbuster?