The Bourne series was one of the first major productions to put its international financing structure on screen. As Universal gears up for the global roll-out of The Bourne Ultimatum, John Hazelton explores the benefits of such globe-trotting.

Even for an international man of mystery, Jason Bourne really gets around. Over the course of three Universal Pictures spy thrillers - 2002's $214m-grossing The Bourne Identity, 2004's $288m-grossing The Bourne Supremacy and new release The Bourne Ultimatum - the former CIA assassin played by Matt Damon has passed, usually at breakneck speed, through a dozen or so countries.

The Bourne productions have followed the character almost every step of the way. Rather than using more accessible substitute locations, the films have been shot in most of the actual countries on Bourne's itinerary. And besides adding to the films' vivid style, the extensive location work has also pumped millions of dollars into several European production hubs and allowed Universal to tap into a growing list of international financing mechanisms.

The Cold War-era Robert Ludlum novels on which the films are loosely based, 'gave people the opportunity to go to places that were exotic and different, and that's what we're trying to do in the movies,' says Frank Marshall, executive producer of The Bourne Identity and producer (with Patrick Crowley and Paul L Sandberg) of Supremacy and Ultimatum.

'That's why we're always going to the real places rather than cheating. The international flavour is one of the key elements in the movies, so we like to deliver on that.'

But, Marshall adds, 'one of the challenges for us is figuring out how to do it efficiently and economically. We have our own way of putting these movies together where it's not insanely expensive.'

The production philosophy grew out of director Doug Liman's push to shoot The Bourne Identity in Paris, where most of the first film's story is set. The $60m project was based in the notoriously bureaucratic city and used a largely French crew on locations that ranged from the banks of the Seine to the immigrant neighbourhood of Belleville.

To balance the cost of shooting in the French capital, the project conducted its stage work at Prague's Barrandov Studios. The film-friendly Czech Republic capital also substituted for Zurich in a few scenes.

Identity's Paris shoot established the franchise's approach to its high-profile locations. The films try to avoid giving audiences 'a tourist visit' to a famous city, Marshall explains: 'We try to show these cities as they are for the people that live in them. So you don't see the Eiffel Tower in Paris and you don't see the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.'

Audiences for The Bourne Supremacy did, however, see plenty of other Berlin locales. Much of the action in the second Bourne film, which had British director Paul Greengrass at the helm, takes place in Berlin, and the $85m project was centred at the city's Babelsberg Studios.

Basing operations at Babelsberg secured the project a discount on the cost of studio stages and facilities (Supremacy even developed its film on site). Though not necessary to secure the investment, it also put the production on the doorstep of German film fund Hannover Leasing, whose Theta sub-fund put money into the film, an official US-German co-production.

Some of Supremacy's Moscow scenes were shot in the former East Berlin, though some principal photography took place in the Russian city itself. A two-week shoot in Goa, India, one of the series' most exotic locations, produced the film's opening action sequence.

The Bourne Ultimatum was the widest-travelled of the three projects, shooting in six countries over 100 days. It was also the most expensive, with a budget that Marshall says ended up at around $130m after incentives.

This time, the choice of primary location had direct financial consequences. With Greengrass returning as director and other English elements already in place, Marshall and his fellow producers saw a chance to pass the UK's 'cultural test' and qualify for the new tax breaks that had come into effect in April 2006.

By basing Ultimatum at Pinewood Studios near London from September 2006 to last February, doing stage work, visual effects and music at the facility and casting most of the non-starring roles and extras locally, the producers amassed the necessary points to qualify for the new breaks. And that, says Marshall, knocked 10%-15% off the film's budget.

Marshall and co also took the opportunity to add London to the franchise's list of world capital locations. Scenes filmed in the metropolis included a tense pursuit through bustling Waterloo railway station.

'We tend to pick big challenges for our action scenes,' says Marshall, 'which I guess is part of why people like them - they've never seen a car chase in the middle of Moscow (as they did in The Bourne Supremacy) or a cat-and-mouse game in Waterloo.'

Ultimatum took most of its crew from the UK to secondary locations in Morocco and Spain. Then, in February, it moved to New York City to shoot locations for a third act that has the peripatetic Bourne returning to the US to solve the mystery of his identity.

While New York offered more tax incentives - both the state and the city have tax credit schemes - it also proved 'a very tough location', Marshall affirms. 'It's really hard, particularly staging a car chase, which we did. We could only shoot on weekends because of the traffic problems.'

Putting up with tough locations has paid off nicely for the franchise at the box office. The Bourne Identity grossed $121.7m in North America and $92.3m internationally and The Bourne Supremacy took $176.2m at home and $112.3m in the rest of the world. The films have also been video hits, selling a total of 17.5m units between them in North America, according to Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

The future of the franchise, meanwhile, is a bit of a mystery. At a Cannes film festival press conference for Ocean's Thirteen in May, Damon appeared to rule out another turn as the character. Marshall, however, says Universal already owns the rights to The Bourne Legacy, the 2004 novel by Eric Van Lustbader that continued the Bourne story after Ludlum's death in 2001.

'If we're able to come up with a great script, I think everybody will consider doing another one,' says Marshall, whose resume also includes Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Sixth Sense. 'Matt's pretty much said to me, 'Look, show me the script. If I like the script, I'm in.''