One of Universal's most successful recent film series is the Bourne franchise, named for Matt Damon's former CIA black ops assassin Jason Bourne. An adaptation of the series of espionage novels of the same name by writer Robert Ludlum, the franchise is now coming to television as Treadstone, a new action-packed thriller series premiering on the USA Network later this month. Treadstone is named after the clandestine CIA program that brainwashed and trained Bourne and his counterparts to become the lethal, globe-trotting killers of the films and novels.
In an exclusive interview, Treadstone showrunner and executive producer Ben Smith discusses bringing the popular franchise to cable television, the logistical challenges of following multiple sleeper agents reactivating around the world, exploring the history of the program in the past, and how the series is relevant to international current events.
CBR: With Treadstone, you're expanding the world of Jason Bourne, you're expanding unseen history on this action franchise. How did developing this property for television all come about?
Ben Smith: Well, doing Treadstone as a television series is something we've talking about for many years. The mythology of Treadstone and all of the black ops groups working within the CIA was something that was very interesting to us and the genesis of Jason Bourne. So it's something that we've been developing for some time.
This is one of the more ambitious pilots and premises; you've got not just multiple global locations but also multiple timelines. How has it been sorting through all of that logistically in terms of writing and filming?
It's definitely challenging in the best sense of the word. It's what excited me the most about this series; doing it this way, we can dive in and tell a story in North Korea or 1973 Berlin or being in the Arctic on an oil rig. All the scope of it really excited me both from a storytelling place and as a viewer. I like things that have a lot of different things to draw from when watching.
Shooting it, logistically, was challenging but everyone was challenged to do their best. We had three units shooting simultaneously almost all the time. We had our main unit, we had our international unit; in the last nine months, I think I traveled 200,000 miles. So we shot on many, many different locations around the world which was very exciting. And then we had a second unit shooting a ton of action for the episodes so we had a lot of spinning plates at all times which was fun.
USA has since released the titles of the first four episodes hinting at locations beyond [the premiere episode] "The Cicada Protocol." Will the focus tighten moving forward both time-wise and location-wise or can we expect the multiple plot lines to continue throughout the first season?
We have multiple storylines which is kind of the DNA of our show. Do they cross over? Do they converge? Absolutely. We have multiple storylines, not timelines. We do have a couple timelines but some of our storylines converge and we're consistent in having multiple points of view.
How connected and how many Easter eggs and other nods to all of the previous Bourne films can we expect moving forward throughout the season?
For both fans of Ludlum and fans of the films, there are winks and nods throughout, you just kind of have to pay attention, but you'll see them.
You literally don't pull any of your punches in this first episode; you really do have the high-octane action the franchise is known for. How was it staging and filming that? It looks like the actors are doing their own stunts as well.
Our actors have been training...a lot of them trained for almost a year. It's been intense and they've loved it. Yeah, a lot of our actors perform a lot of their own stunts. We do obviously have stunt people as well but our actors have embraced it and it's been one of the more exciting things about the roles for them is the degree they've been able to embrace the stunt work.
You've got locations in Korea, in Russia, in [the Arctic]. Some of these locations, we've never seen before in this franchise.
A lot of it were places we were interested in and things that felt timely but also something that we wanted to spend time in. We go to Ghana because we wanted to spend time in Africa; we go to India as well. And being in these different locations was something that was very important to us. There's a travelogue nature to the films and to the books and what was very important for me in the beginning of the series is that we do film around the world.
Was it important maintaining this sense of accessibility for someone that may not be well steeped in Ludlum's novels or the movie series while maintaining that greater connection to the intellectual property?
Yes! We wanted this to be interesting or exciting to somebody who had never seen a Bourne movie or read a Robert Ludlum book while simultaneously having things for true and casual fans. Having enough there that they understood "Treadstone, I know what this is, I'm excited to watch it."
What was it about USA that made this the right network to come out on?
USA has a fantastic broad base. We also make our movies at [parent company] Universal and it was just an obvious and perfect choice for us in terms of USA's reach and its audience.
What makes Treadstone and its depiction of the CIA and realpolitik locations relevant and vital for today's audiences?
There's so much happening in terms of the political and global landscape that we're in. We do touch on some of that but the real home of our story is the personal and emotional lives of our characters and how some of these events are affecting them personally in their homes and in their families.
What are you most proud about expanding the world of Jason Bourne to television audiences for the first time?
I guess the bottom line is I'm hoping the audience connects to it and can go have some fun and wonderment and take something with it, like I did after I watched the first Bourne film. This is a show that I would watch and I'm proud of it, and that makes me excited about it and I hope people enjoy the experience.
Starring Brian J. Smith, Jeremy Irvine, Michelle Forbes, Omar Metwally, Tracy Ifeachor, Han Hyo-joo, Gabrielle Scharnitzky, Michael Gaston, Shruti Haasan and Emilia Schüle, Treadstone premieres on the USA Network October 15 at 10pm ET/PT.