"You need to be butch! Butcher and more intense." That's darned good advice for an NFL lineman, a carjacker ... or an action-movie star forced to start filming while awaiting pivotal script pages. It was Paul Greengrass's direction for Matt Damon when they commenced shooting this summer's globe-galloping thriller The Bourne Ultimatum without a finished screenplay. "I didn't know where I had come from. I didn't know where I was going--which are things you really need to know as an actor," says Damon, who reprises his role as conflicted assassin Jason Bourne for the third movie in the series. Luckily, Damon and Greengrass share a shorthand from collaborating on the second Bourne film, as well as certain personality traits unusual in their trade, like flexibility and a lack of ego. And in a Hollywood besotted with robots and wizards, this actor-director team shares something rarer still: Damon and Greengrass are virtuosos of realism.
Both men are best known for what they don't do. The star's most memorable screen moments are his suggestive silences in his roles as shadowy figures in films like The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Departed. The director's signature is his spare and painstaking re-creation of historical events, as in 2002's Bloody Sunday and last year's Oscar-nominated United 93. As individuals, Damon and Greengrass never, ever overdo it. But as a team, these gurus of understated storytelling have flourished in and elevated the most bombastic of genres, the summer action-movie franchise.
They just finished their second and probably last Bourne film together. This one answers the question Bourne has been asking since the beginning: How he got so good at killing. "It's not about looking at a woman in a bikini coming out of the sea," says Greengrass. (Take that, James Bond!) "You get the dark past and this powerful search for redemption." And, fear not, plenty of hairy-chested action sequences too, including a car chase in midtown Manhattan, a shootout in London's Waterloo train station, and a sweaty foot chase and fistfight in Tangier, Morocco.
If the threat of a writers' strike doesn't prevent it, Team Damongrass will collaborate later this year on a project that calls for more brain than brawn: Imperial Life in the Emerald City, based on the book by the Washington Post's former Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran about the chaos in U.S.-occupied Iraq. The hot-button political subject suits the preppy New Englander, 36, and scruffy Brit, 51, whose commitment to residing in the uncomfortable world of real life is reflected in a Bourne Ultimatum scene with a black-hooded CIA prisoner that is obviously intended to conjure up the snapshots from Abu Ghraib.
Outside the multiplex, these guys have kept it real as well. By marrying a civilian--a bartending single mom--instead of an actress and raising his family quietly in Miami instead of Hollywood, Damon lives a pretty grounded life for an A-lister. After attending Cambridge University, Greengrass spent the 1980s aiming his handheld camera at global hot spots for the British documentary series World in Action. Before moving to dramas, he co-authored Spycatcher, a book that so controversially depicted the British intelligence service that the British government banned it and attempted (unsuccessfully) to ban it in other countries.
Paul and Matt are joining the ranks of Marty and Leo, Pedro and Penélope, Quentin and Uma--modern pairs of directors and actors who find they speak a common language and choose to do it again and again onscreen. The Bourne movies, unlike most meticulously planned and elaborately staged action pictures, are filmed guerrilla-style in the chaos of the urban world, a process that demands more than the usual team mentality. "It's like going to war," Greengrass says. "Who's going to be there? You want to know that someone's there every step of the way."
Like many great couplings, this one nearly didn't happen. Damon first played Bourne, loosely based on the Robert Ludlum character, for director Doug Liman in 2002's The Bourne Identity. That movie minted a gritty new kind of action film, but its nail-biting production left Universal Studios looking for a new director who could somehow combine edge and efficiency. At a 2003 meeting at the studio, writer Tony Gilroy suggested Greengrass. "There was a grunt of approval," remembers Damon, sitting across from Greengrass in a poolside cabana at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills. "I was the one idiot in the room who hadn't seen Bloody Sunday." After the meeting, Damon watched the documentary-style drama about the 1972 massacre of civil rights marchers in Northern Ireland. Within hours, he recalls, "I called the producers and said we'd be really lucky if we could get this guy--"
"So now, let me finish the story," Greengrass interrupts. "I was in Los Angeles, and I got a phone call saying Would I like to do The Bourne Supremacy?" Enthusiastic about taking his first crack at a mainstream Hollywood project, he agreed to attend a meeting at the studio later that day. Not familiar with the city--"I was a small, little European director"--he accidentally took a taxi to the nearby Universal Studios Theme Park instead of the studio. Realizing his mistake, "I turned into Jason Bourne's overweight older brother, trying to get from the Universal Studios Theme Park to Universal Studios."
Despite his tardiness, Greengrass won over producers with his analysis of the Bourne character and his comfort with fast-paced, naturalistic filmmaking, honed from his documentary work. Producers fixed him up on a date with Damon, who was by this point in Prague filming The Brothers Grimm for Terry Gilliam. At London's Heathrow Airport, with £15 in his pocket, Greengrass realized, "I'd better get some money, 'cause I'm taking out one of the world's great movie stars." His cash card was overdrawn. "So I spent the whole meeting with him thinking, Please don't order the steak." This would be the first of many times Damon came through for his director in a pinch. "We got pissed quite early, and then he paid," Greengrass remembers fondly.