Director Paul Greengrass earned a reputation for himself with stirring dramas based on shocking real-world events, first with Black Sunday then with the 9/11 drama United 93, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. Even so, most moviegoers will probably be more acquainted with his work on the action-packed Jason Bourne movies, specifically The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum.
Greengrass’ new movie Green Zone reunites him with his “Bourne” star Matt Damon for a movie that combines the two things Greengrass does best, getting at the very core of topical news stories and relaying that information in a way that’s entertaining for mainstream audiences.
The movie takes place during the early days of the Iraq War with Damon portraying Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, who has been put in charge of finding the mythical “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD) that led the United States and Britain to invade Iraq. As Miller learns, there are no WMDs to be found in the locations he’s been given, so he starts questioning the veracity of the information. Miller’s journey to find the truth is a conspiracy thriller at its core, but it also includes a number of fast-paced action sequences using the trademark handheld camerawork and high-speed editing that has defined Greengrass’ recent work and helped define the often-used term “Bourne-like.”
The rest of his cast includes Greg Kinnear as Clark Poundstone, the CIA agent most responsible for spreading misinformation, his opposing counterpart Martin Brown, played by Brendan Gleeson, and Amy Ryan as a field reporter trying to help Miller get to the truth.
ComingSoon.net has been hoping to talk to Mr. Greengrass for quite a few years, and as we learned when we sat down with him, the man can certainly talk at length when given the floor – it actually reminded us of a Stanley Kubrick anecdote we heard recently. After a long day of doing press and talking about his movie, he was suitably knackered so he lounged back on the couch in his suite and regaled us with his thoughts as we did our best to get in a question or two. It ended up being a deeply honest give-and-take in terms of him sharing what he hoped people would get out of the movie, then putting us on the spot by asking if we thought he pulled it off.
ComingSoon.net: When someone tells me Paul Greengrass is doing a movie about the Iraq War, I immediately think this is going to be the most accurate and realistic movie about the war that’s been made, which is sort of true. But when you tell a producer or the folks at Working Title you want to make a movie set in Iraq, are they just as excited about it or is it a harder sell convincing them it’s a movie worth making?
Paul Greengrass: Honestly and truly, no. I mean, these things sort of unfold in a continuum really. In actual fact what happened was, after I made “Supremacy” which was summer 2004 I actually went out to lunch with Stacey Snider, who’s been running head of Universal. She said, “What do you want to do next?” I said, “Well, I don’t know, but I definitely want to be between 9/11 on the one hand here and the war in Iraq here.” I wouldn’t have called it the war in Iraq ’cause bear in mind, we’re only a year after (it started). I made that film throughout that whole thing. I started it just as they invaded really. I said, “I don’t know quite what the story (will be), but I’ll find a story that I want to make. Maybe it’ll be a true story, maybe it’ll be a fictional story. I just don’t know, but I’ll go off and I’ll figure it out and I’ll come back.” She said, “Oh great, okay, off you go.”
Well, one thing happened and another thing happened. As it turned out, though I didn’t know that then, it became two separate films ’cause the following early summer I decided to make “United 93,” one film about a true story, very scrupulously kind of fact-driven about that central event of 9/11. I always knew I was then gonna go and make “Bourne Ultimatum.” As soon as I made that, it all seemed to make sense, because I went, “Oh, okay, I get it now. I’m gonna do ’93’ then I’m gonna go and do a big ‘Bourne’ movie and then I’m gonna do something about Iraq, I don’t know quite what.” So I’m doing “Ultimatum” and I’m puzzling away what that film beyond “Ultimatum” was gonna be. I’m talking with Brian Helgeland who’s a mate of mine; we’d worked together on “Bourne Supremacy” and he’s a fantastic writer, and I said, “If you don’t want to come and do this with me,” and he said, “Sure.” We’re going back and forth, and to both of us, it was very obvious, several things that were at the heart of this film. Firstly, the whole point of doing the film really only worked if you were making a film that had broad appeal. In other words, to follow it up by making another “United 93”-type film didn’t feel quite right ’cause I’d sorta done “United 93.” I did think about it. I did think about doing a small film, but it felt to me like other people were doing that.
CS: Right, I was curious about that, because there were a lot of people making Iraq movies Brian De Palma for instance.
Greengrass: Exactly and I sort of thought that to me, that didn’t feel right. I wanted to make a film with broad appeal. Why? For this simple reason that you couldn’t make a “Bourne” film–and this was my second one–without being very aware that there was a big audience of particularly young people who were coming out and really loved those movies. Of course, that audience was exactly the audience that was being asked to fight this war. The young boys who were being asked to go and fight this thing, were going to see “Bourne” movies. On the other hand, right around the other side of the spectrum, the young kids who were most opposed to this war were also going to see “Bourne” movies, see what I mean? They’re not going to see small art house movies about Iraq, so to me it was like I want to make a film that those people are gonna want to go and see. It’s a broad audience film, okay? Next, the whole point about the “Bourne” films was that when you distill a “Bourne” film down, what is it? Obviously, it’s a conspiracy action thriller, which is a genre everybody loves.
CS: And now, people even call other political thrillers “Bourne-like” as if it’s somewhat of a subgenre.
Greengrass: Exactly, but at the heart of them, they’re sort of distilled paranoia, aren’t they really, high-octane paranoia? People love ’em because they go, “Yeah, that feels…” it’s that thing that are at a loss to talk about but always know it when it’s there and that’s the zeitgeist, it feels very contemporary. But a conspiracy action thriller that’s about distilled high-octane paranoia doesn’t become wildly popular for no reason. It becomes wildly popular because it’s reflecting what’s out there in the real world, the turbulence of the real world. It’s being distilled in a way and through a genre that people can go, “Great, that feels like it.” It’s fun and hugely entertaining and they’re not sitting and thinking about those things when they’re experiencing the movie, but that’s why it’s like anything that connects in popular culture. It connects because it makes a connection that feels very satisfying, so then that’s when we’re going, “If we can find the story, a fictional story with broad appeal, make a film with broad appeal, we’re basically inviting that audience to take a step back to where it all begins. That led us, Brian and I, inevitably to the whole conspiracy-ridden, tangled, exciting, secret world of the WMD hunt. That feels so exciting because everybody knows about it, but nobody really knows what happened except that the weapons weren’t there. But that’s a great place to put a real-world conspiracy action-thriller because straight off you’re going to have a character with a noble cause who just turns up with a piece of paper that says, “Go to grid graph 742,
you’ll find the following weapons.” When he gets there, they’re not there, and then of course he’s gonna say, “Well, hang on, we had to fight our way here, why aren’t they there? You said they were there.” Then you’ve got the great hero that you always want.
CS: Did you do end up doing a lot of research to find out about this information or did Brian do that? I know the book isn’t about this subject.
Greengrass: Well, the book came later. No, we had Michael Bronner, who worked with me on “United 93,” and Kate Solomon, they were doing a lot of research. What happened was, we very quickly got the character of Miller and the WMD Hunt, then he’d start asking questions why, and he’d become a hero searching for truth and then he’d go off reservation and he’d be looking for answers. That would lead him into more danger and then you’d get your action, all that. But it did feel like we were struggling to get home on it. You do that. When you’re trying to unfold a thriller, you need some entertainment and that was when I read Rajiv’s book. I remember reading the first five pages of the book which is a brilliant sort of evocation of the world of the Green Zone with the Saddam Palaces and the Burger Kings, and the swimming pools, just kind of like an oasis in a f*cked up Baghdad, do you know what I mean? Almost like a sorta Shakespearean court, it’s riddled with paranoia and faction fights and of course, the stakes are incredibly high, because they’re moving towards that fateful moment when they get rid of the Iraqi army and the place collapses. As soon as I read it, it was like, “Well, that’s it. Obviously, our hero’s gonna go to the Green Zone and that’s where he’s gonna get his answers.” So, that’s why I optioned the book and that’s where the book comes in.
CS: I’m gonna play devil’s advocate, and I’m sure others have and will do the same when asking you about the movie.
Greengrass: Go for it.
CS: When Kathryn Bigelow made “The Hurt Locker,” even a year and a half ago when it premiered at Toronto, people were saying, “Okay, this is a setting we’ve already seen in hundreds of docs and films, and this movie is coming too late.” To make a movie like this, does it still feel very timely both when you’re starting it and now that you’ve finished it? Do you feel people will feel it’s still timely or is the fact that it’s an entertaining action-thriller enough?
Greengrass: I think that in the end, if you can create a conspiracy action-thriller and you give a lot of adrenaline and a character with a noble cause, and he’s going back to where we went wrong basically and he’s righting that wrong, I think that could be tremendously dramatically satisfying and feel very much of the here and now, because it kind of is about leaving the issue behind. But, a lot of people are gonna think like that because they want to see a clearly-defined hero with a noble cause searching for the truth, taking risks, engaged in a lot of action with a truly satisfying end. But they want to marry that with, I think, personally, smart storytelling, thematic intelligence, some depth and beef to the story and a real strong moral component. If you can deliver that in a contemporary setting, I think that’s gonna feel, I hope and believe, it is an original and bold new step in that big action-thriller.
CS: I hope so.
Greengrass: Audiences I think will appreciate it.
CS: I have literally seen every single Iraq movie, every single documentary about the subject, which is not the case with most people, so it’s hard for me to be removed from that and the fact that for most people, this will be the first movie about Iraq they’ll be seeing.
Greengrass: They’ll come to it not as an Iraq movie, nor should they. They’ll come to it because they want what Matt and I have done before. They want to see what we do next, and that comes with responsibilities. You know, you got a responsibility to say, “Well, we’re not selling you here. You’re gonna find a lot of the things here that you’ve enjoyed from us before, a lot. There’s a lot of action in that movie and a lot of excitement and if you want to enjoy it in that way.” But it’s smart and contemporary and that’s what you’d expect from us.
CS: A lot of people including myself, producers and Hollywood types as well, we kind of analyze movies like this to try to figure out why they succeed or don’t succeed.
Greengrass: It’s their job isn’t it?
CS: We see so many decent Iraq movies not making much money, but then you see a video game like “Call of Duty” making an insane amount of money, basically doing exactly what you’re doing in this movie, creating an action movie in that real world environment.
Greengrass: I mean, my son plays that thing to date. Believe me, I’ve become aware – I mean, I wasn’t obviously when I started this movie, but when I feel optimistic about this movie, that’s exactly where I go to. If you can give people the experience that they want. It comes down to, what is it Matt and I are known for? We’re known for delivering on our promises, stories with a lot of action that’s adrenaline-soaked but also highly-detailed. Smart storytelling, intelligence, and a strong, contemporary setting. And they wouldn’t expect us just to make the same old film every time. So this is what you come to, you come to this film that feels like a natural next step to “Bourne.” It’s not Jason Bourne and he’s not Jason Bourne, but it’s a natural step for Matt and I to make this film. So here’s the question if you liked “Bourne Ultimatum,” will you be disappointed with this film?
CS: I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say because like I’ve said, I’ve seen far too many Iraq movies.
Greengrass: It’s nothing to do with Iraq movies. If you saw “Bourne Ultimatum” and liked it, would you be disappointed with this? ‘Cause that’s the prism through which people are gonna come to this, not through Brian De Palma’s film ’cause they’re never gonna have seen it. No disrespect to those movies, but that’s the issue here. In “Bourne Supremacy” and “Bourne Ultimatum,” I tried to push the envelope with those movies as close to the real world. “Ultimatum” felt like it was ripped out the headlines, didn’t it? With the water boarding and the war on terror and all that stuff in there, and the journalism and the source and it felt very, very strongly contemporary.
CS: You talked a bit about your editing process earlier, and I know you went back and did some reshoots. You finished the movie completely and then went back and filmed more, so can you talk about what the main focus was when you were doing those reshoots?
Greengrass: Well firstly, the process was pretty similar to “Bourne,” it was like a small “Bourne” I would say, but this movie didn’t cost anywhere near as much as a “Bourne” movie, but it was still a big movie substantially. The actual process, unlike “93” where I shot for whatever money and that was it. Once you’re into those bigger movies, you do generally come back and do a bit of re-shooting. I would say the main things we did were some different ways along the way to get to places that we wanted to, but we felt we could take a different road to the same destination rather than a different destination.
CS: So they’re more story-based.
Greengrass: Yeah, exactly. So things all actually to do with how Miller grasped the central fact, that Arawi had been telling Poundstone that the WMD weren’t there as opposed to they were there. That was quite a difficult thing to convey and we tried various ways until we got that. Then the last thing was the third act, that big 20-minute action sequence, we augmented it because we had issues with Matt’s availability, he had to go off to do another thing as actors do, so we were always light in terms of getting that sequence, so we came back later to kinda get some of it.
CS: Obviously you mentioned this in relation to “United 93” and throughline between them, so do you see those two movies as bookends?
Greengrass: Which two?
CS: “United 93” and in this movie.
Greengrass: No, I see it as… “Supremacy,” “93,” “Ultimatum,” “Green Zone” somewhere in the middle.
CS: Then the theory would be that you’d do another big movie next or another thing in the vein of “Bourne.”
Greengrass: Well, I hope so. Yeah, I hope so.
CS: Do you have the one-for-them, one-for-me mentality that many filmmakers and artists have, or not so much?
Greengrass: Actually, you know, I often talk about it, but actually I don’t, because I think that you can’t afford to. I’m not sure they do either really. I think that you can only make the films that you really want to make, and they can only make the films that they really want to make. What you do have with them… and that’s why I’ve made four films at Universal… they have a great culture of longevity and partnership. I mean, this film, however we cut it, is a bold roll of the dice for me and for them and for Matt and for everybody. You know, it’s trying to do something bold in the mainstream, where it’s hard, where you and your colleagues will justifiably criticize us for being samey and being safe, you know? So we’re trying to do something…
CS: I’m not sure if that’s the case. I don’t know if people will say that this is safe.
Greengrass: I wouldn’t say this is safe.
CS: No, I don’t think any of my colleagues would say this is a safe movie either.
Greengrass: No, I’m saying, these types of big films you’ll say, “Oh, that’s a pretty formulaic big movie.” What I’m saying is that THIS one is NOT. What I’m saying is (Universal) should be applauded for being bold. I certainly applaud them and I did last night. I think they’ve been fantastic and are only ever entirely supportive to me and that’s great.
CS: I’m sure Universal would love me to end the interview right there (as the publicist walks in with the next interviewer)… for various reasons.
Greengrass: (laughs) Right… Well, we’ll see if anybody goes!
Green Zone opens on March 12. Look for an interview with Matt Damon sometime before then.