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Matt Damon’s fight trainer explains how he made Bourne’s brawls so gritty

“When a fight becomes more personal, it’s less about the technical aspects and more about the visual violence and drama, and the desire for inciting pain and injury to your sworn enemy.”

Jason Bourne has never been a man to take anything put in front of him lightly. And in Jason Bourne, available now from Universal on 4K UltraHD Blu-ray and other formats, the onetime elite officer played to the hilt of intensity by Matt Damon is involved in some of the most brutal and visceral fight scenes in the entire film series, many of them thanks to the efforts of fight coordinator and martial arts master Roger Yuan (Skyfall, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

“When we see Bourne’s second bare-knuckle boxing fight, he’s taking punishment,” Yuan told Digital Trends. “But he’s actually welcoming it, because it allows him to feel something. He’s been doing the bare-knuckle boxing to make some money — but also to exorcise his own demons. He enjoys the pain.”

We got on the horn with Yuan to discuss how he coordinated the film’s most intensely involving fight scenes, how Bourne is the master of found objects, and what his own personal favorite movie action sequences are — one of which we guarantee you’d never guess. 

Digital Trends: Roger, I think I’ve figured out exactly why Matt Damon’s hair seems to be turning grayer and grayer whenever I see him on talk shows. It has to be because of what you put him through during his Jason Bourne training sessions.

Roger Yuan: (chuckles) Well, you know, Matt’s always been a very, very hard worker and a very astute student, whether it’s when he’s with his own boxing coach or when he’s with us while we’re doing the fight sequences. He’s very involved.

In one of the extras, Matt said one of your goals with the action in this movie was to build the fight scenes like fans of movie fight scenes would like to see them. That seems like a pretty accurate statement to me.

Yeah, it is; very much so. This particular Jason Bourne started off with a note from [director] Paul Greengrass, saying there was going to be more raw, visceral action now that Bourne has been immersed in the world of bare-knuckle underground boxing. He’s tried to stay under the radar and hidden for the last 10 years or so since we saw the last Bourne film with him in it [2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum].

You capture that level of brutality to a T, and since it’s being presented in 4K UltraHD, you also had to make sure the camera doesn’t lie. We can’t be taken out of these fight scenes at any moment of the action because a movement doesn’t look or feel right to the viewer.

No, we can’t. In my own background, I started with traditional martial arts and also kickboxing, but I also enjoy Western boxing, Filipino Kali, and dirty boxing. We wanted to bring all of these elements into play again — not only to embellish things, but also not be too repetitive with the previous Bourne films. We wanted to find a different pathway, but still have the viewer and the aficionado of action films find it exciting to watch.

And also, as you said, Matt’s hair is grayer. (both chuckle) So you also have to take into account that, because Jason Bourne is a little bit older, it’s less about the amount of techniques used but more about the condensation of skill and how more effectively and more efficiently an older Bourne would hit, when he would hit, and how he chooses to fight. That was all taken into consideration. At the same time, we still had to make it as visceral and visual and violent as possible.

The film’s end fight sequence is between Bourne and the Treadstone Asset who was before him. [The Asset is played by Vincent Cassell.] They have a very, very involved animus, and a hatred for each other that’s very personal. And when it becomes more personal, it’s less about the technical aspects of the fight and literally more about the visual violence and drama, and the desire for inciting pain and injury to your sworn enemy.

The use of the knife — the takeaways, and all the back and forth with it — was also pretty gripping.

Yeah. What’s interesting with that is, originally, Paul Greengrass had visualized this end fight going through the Las Vegas tunnels, but these tunnels were actually populated by homeless people. The original idea was The Asset and Jason Bourne would be fighting through detritus and the people’s makeshift homes made of cardboard, and they’d make use of the environment around them.

Everything about that end fight was less about the technique or the volume, and more about the drama.

The knife fight and the takeaway exchange was originally much longer. But what Paul decided — which I think was totally right — was to have the tunnel be very minimal, with a little detritus here and there so that it looked more like the bowels of a Roman Colisseum.

It’s like an animus cage match going on down there.

Yes, exactly! So now, Bourne is being attacked with the knife, and he’s deflecting it with a picked up, old, worn kettle. The knife impales in the bottom of the kettle, and then he spins it, and that’s how we get rid of it.

Everything about that end fight was actually more about how less was being more — less about the technique or the volume, and more about the drama, the animus, and the hatred that the two guys have for each other, mixed in with a lot of fast and fluid techniques.

You also have moments like where Bourne is grabbing The Asset by the head trying to break his neck, and The Asset going to his bullet wound, sticking his thumb through the wound to create that pain. That was something Paul Greengrass directly wanted — he wanted more of that style of violence that wasn’t so practiced with a technical application. It was really just about two violent, intent animals going at each other.

I have to tell you, I was hard-pressed to sit still while watching the end of that fight sequence. I think I almost pulled the armrests off my chair. It was that intense for me as a viewing experience.

Oh, that’s great to hear! I’m really happy to hear that. Styles make fights. If you had, say, Sugar Ray Leonard fighting Floyd Mayweather, I bet you it would actually be a boring fight, because they both know how slick and how technical each fighter can be. It wouldn’t be as interesting or as exciting as [Marvin] Hagler versus [Tommy] Hearns, because it’s different styles.

The one bare-knuckle scene from the movie that was also featured prominently in the main trailer, where Bourne delivers one punch and the guy goes down — that made the Mike Tyson bell go off in my head.

Yeah, and that was a quick, fast left hook. And remember — Jason Bourne has been used to fighting two, three, and four guys at a time, while bare-knuckled brawlers, as skilled as they are, are still fighting in the realm of some kinds of rules. In essence, when Bourne is in that world, he’s reflecting on how many fights he’s had and how many lives he’s taken. It’s that whole psychology.

Do you have a favorite fight scene from any other film that you have not personally been involved with?

Ahhh … well, I have a few. Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II (1994), the end fight scene. It was incredibly creative — the use of traditional fluid, drunken-style kung fu with stunts, with him going into the flames and drinking the fuel/candle oil [i.e., the industrial alcohol]. Very, very inventive. I’ve always admired him. I didn’t work on that one, but I have worked with Jackie, on Shanghai Noon (2000).

I like the first Bourne Identity (2002) as well — the end fight sequence Matt had to do. It introduced, in a really good way, the Filipino style of Kali and dirty boxing.

And then, finally — and people will laugh — but only because I found it hilarious, I thought the big fight in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), between Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, was great! It was literally two guys who knew nothing about fighting and didn’t want to fight each other, but they had to play it out. I thought it was brilliant filmmaking with these two slaphappy nerds where neither of them wanted to fight, or really wanted to get hurt. It was really good storytelling.

Since Vinzenz was slightly smaller, I said, “Let’s use the weights to attack Bourne.”

If you had the chance to do one more Bourne film, what would you want him to do that he hasn’t done yet with a found object?

Well, I don’t want to say, because that would let it out of the bag … (slight pause) Well, you know what? It would be interesting to see Bourne pull out a credit card and use it against the blade of a knife. Who knows? Or maybe he breaks apart a Dyson vacuum cleaner, and uses the Dyson ball.

It always depends on what the environment holds. Sometimes, I didn’t even know what we were going to use until we got to the environment we were shooting in. But to be invested in the story and the character of Jason Bourne, you almost have to invent it at the time he uses it.

So you sometimes have to improvise on the spot. Is that what happened with the chair leg?

Vinzenz Kiefer, the actor who played Dassault, who Bourne fought in the apartment, is thinner and more slightly built than Bourne. When we got to the set, we saw an old barbell there, and a bench press. Since Vinzenz was slightly smaller, I said, “Let’s use the weights to attack Bourne.”

So the guy sneaks up on Bourne when he’s immersed in looking at the laptop and finding information about his father, and uses the dumbbell. And then he needs something bigger, so he picks up the 45-pound barbell, which has this long bar on it, and he swings it wildly at Bourne. There’s a chair off to the side, and Bourne breaks off the chair leg with his forearm to use that chair leg to deflect the barbell downwards into the ground. Once it’s into the ground, he sweeps around and uses a kick that knocks the barbell into Dassault’s shin, knocking him off balance. And then he finishes him off with the chair leg across the face.

As a viewer, it’s like feeling a phantom limb — though maybe that’s not the right phrase for it. If you’ve ever taken a punch yourself or have been hit by an object, you recoil a bit whenever you see that stuff happening onscreen.

That’s great. And I love your earlier comment about almost ripping off the armrest while you were watching the fights. If that’s how it makes you react, then all of us — [stunt coordinator] Gary Powell, [second unit director] Simon Crane, and the whole action and fight team — well, we’ve done our job correctly. And we appreciate that.

What’s your next project?

I just finished fight-training Dylan O’Brien, the young actor from The Maze Runner. The project is called American Assassin, and it’s based on the Vince Flynn books. It’s fantastic.

Dylan actually went through a horrific accident where, basically, he had to reconstruct his face. I had to train him physically, but I also had to help guide him, almost like a counselor, in terms of the emotional and psychological aspects of what he had gone through — to not be victimized by the accident, but use it as a tool to work through and get stronger for the future.

I’ve been very, very fortunate. I’ve been able to work with Daniel Craig on Skyfall and Matt Damon on Jason Bourne, so to start a young man off in the process — to start Dylan O’Brien off as Mitch Rapp — I feel very blessed, and hopefully, it bears out that what happened was meant to be.

We’ll have to call you the modern-day equivalent of Yoda. So you’ll have to say all that again — but this time, do it like Yoda: “Blessed, I feel.”

(laughs) Funny enough, one of my good friends, Tim McGraw, who’s also a client, calls me Yoda. As I’m getting older, I welcome that. I accept it.