EXCLUSIVE: Conveying the kinetic energy of real-life events has become a signature for Paul Greengrass. He grew up making documentaries, and then television dramas like the IRA car bombing saga Omagh, which he produced and co-wrote. He turned that urgent cinematic style to features including 2002’s Bloody Sunday, the Oscar-nominated 2006 drama United 93, and fictional dramas including Green Zone, and the last two Bourne installments The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Here, he’s in the Oscar hunt again with Captain Phillips, and so are his dueling captains played by Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi.
DEADLINE: We all watched the Somali pirate hijacking play out in real time not long ago. What did you see under the surface here that made this feature-worthy?
GREENGRASS: There’s got to be something about the story that’s both accurately clear and dramatic, but also layered and complex. That was the case here and on United 93. What was clear about both: these were siege/hostage crises that turned into tense, dramatic events with clear, compelling characters. But there was a broader more complex landscape. Why do young men become pirates, these vagabonds with AK-47s who are prepared to defy the might of the U.S. Navy? It was enough to ask, what does this event mean? It’s layered and complex and it goes to where we are today. I felt that way about United 93 and Bloody Sunday. You make the film as authentically as you know how, and if you make judgments with a spirit of open-mindedness, complexities emerge. These traumatic series of events seem to speak to the way we are.
DEADLINE: It sounds like you can be surprised during the journey, when things reveal themselves even when you have a strong script as your blueprint. What emerged that surprised you most?
GREENGRASS: I remember Tom and I having a long, rolling conversation early on, asking, what is this really about? What’s the question we’re trying to answer here? We ended up literally writing it on a piece of paper. Is it going to be OK? It seems banal, but it captured the state of mind of a regular guy in the Merchant Marines who goes off to sea. My father was in the Merchant Marines. All of us feel the economic pressure that causes us to work harder. Then this terrible thing happens and it becomes a question of, it’s going to be alright, isn’t it? There is a feeling of underlying unease, a general sense that the world wheels are turning fast.
DEADLINE: Your Somali pirates were played by first-time actors. Why did you keep them away from Tom Hanks until the siege occurred?
GREENGRASS: From day one, they were saying, when can we meet Tom Hanks? I said, not until you go through that door and take that ship. They were disappointed, but my great anxiety was this: the movie is a study of two captains, two very contrasting figures. One is captain of a large container ship from our world, the other a lawless vagabond from another world. I didn’t want Barkhad to be thinking, that’s Tom Hanks. Or even worse, that’s my friend Tom Hanks. I wanted him to have one thought only. When you go through that door, you have to scare, terrorize and seize control of that bridge. Barkhad came up with that brilliant line, ‘I’m the captain now,’ and it came from that challenge that he had to take charge. I tried to prepare him psychologically. Acting is many things, and one is an exercise of will. In any given scene, you’re trying to find where the drama and conflict is, and then deploy the actors to play at that point of conflict with precision, control, and complete will. It’s no good in a scene to have one actor lie down because the scene says it’s the other actor’s moment. Each actor has to believe that with extra will, the outcome of a scene can be different. An actor can win the scene if he exerts the most powerful will in that moment. That’s what happened. Look back at those performances by Tom and Barkhad; they really build from the moment Barkhad seizes control. For Tom, that’s the moment that he must come back from. The look on his face, a magnificent moment, where he knows his ship is going to be taken. You feel in his face the existential shock of a captain losing his ship. The psychological collapse would be immense. Tom’s performance is really about rebuilding himself from a position of hopelessness, to the end where he goes on that journey in the lifeboat that becomes more emotional and deeper. The film is their trial of strength, their test of wills and it all grew from that first moment.
DEADLINE: You’ve mentioned your father’s Merchant Marine experience. Early on, did you ever want to follow in his nautical footsteps?
GREENGRASS: I didn’t. My father is a classic, taciturn man of the sea. It’s a calling and people really do go to sea because they’re more comfortable there than on land. He’s very old and I said to him that it was funny my life had gone this way, but the older I get the more I realize what I do is similar to what you do. My script is a map, just like on a ship. You go on a journey and the director navigates current and weather, and all the difficulties getting cargo, crew and ship to destination safely. I said, that’s a little bit like you going to sea, isn’t it?
DEADLINE: What did he think?
GREENGRASS: There was a long pause and he said, no, it’s nothing like being on the sea and doing what I did. We had to work really hard.
DEADLINE: Seems like your dad hasn’t gotten all the sea salt out of his system.
GREENGRASS: He hasn’t. But he came to the London premiere and I dedicated the film to him, and it was a lovely moment for a son and his father.
DEADLINE: In your other hijack film, United 93, the answer was a resounding no to your question, is it going to be OK? Was there some connective tissue between those two movies?
GREENGRASS: Well, 93 was this uniquely shocking circumstance, entirely religious-driven nihilism where the mission of those people was killing. So the question became, how do you quickly come to understand this is what is occurring, and how do you confront that? That was what I tried to explore. What was occurring was so beyond anything previously conceived and moving at such unbelievable speed that the air-traffic controllers were unable to process it. Most extraordinary to me about those men and women on board 93 was how they processed what it all meant before anyone else. They had, what, 20 minutes, to process and act, under the most intense pressure. To reach the absolute hierarchy of understanding that this was a suicide mission and therefore there was no option; think of the intense psychological pressure there must have been on those individuals to say, no, no, no, they’ll land the plane and want a ransom. Facing the reality was so terrifying and such an immense leap of mental processing and to do that and act is extraordinary. It continues to grow on me years later. Just the other day I was in D.C., I went for a little walk and went by the White House. I looked up, this was by Capitol Hill, and it is such a beautiful building. I literally cannot look at that building without thinking about those 40 people. Their achievement, the journey they must have gone through to make that decision to act, feels to me today even more extraordinary and inspiring than when I made the movie. Captain Phillips was more an international crime story. You go back to the 19th century, and it was railroads. Go back to the 18th century, stagecoaches. Today it’s the sea routes that carry the local trade.
DEADLINE: Cast and crew must have paid a high price to create the feeling of being on the open sea, and the feeling of claustrophobia on that lifeboat. What was hardest about shooting in such confined quarters?
GREENGRASS: It was always important to commit to authenticity and shoot on real ships. My father’s position in the Merchant Marines forced him to spend all his life at sea and I’ve always wanted to make a movie about that world because I grew up around that. I wanted the actors to have that ocean experience and it worked because it gave logic to a lot of things you couldn’t understand without being there. It was hard being in those very confined spaces, enduring those swells of the sea. It is physically exhausting, doing that week after week. We did a few of the lifeboat scenes on a stage but even there, you’re still getting tossed around. It was a hard shoot but also a very happy shoot. It always felt like you had the wind in your face, and everybody pulled together in the experience.
DEADLINE: You’ve developed a signature visual with camera movement that creates tension and a sense of urgency that has worked in several genres for you. What was the inspiration?
GREENGRASS: I was brought up in television, making documentaries, and they taught you to shoot and to observe. The British documentary tradition is very distinctive and powerful, you know? I always had a secret, deep desire to make movies, though I never knew if I’d get the chance. By the end of my 20s, I got to the phase of, I’ve got to find the girl, I’ve got to follow my own star, I can’t stay doing docs all my life. That took me into television dramas, and then into a hybrid, the made for TV movie. I had a lot of fun, basically writing my own stuff and shooting it and I learned to shoot in a classical, proper sort of grammar. By the end of my 30s, I started to develop a frustration. I thought that the films I’d done were perfectly good and creative, and I had written them. But somehow they didn’t feel authentically mine, like wearing a suit that just doesn’t feel comfortable.
DEADLINE: It’s the same suit everybody else wears?
GREENGRASS: Yes and you realize I am not this person. I became more frustrated with each film, until I decided to go back to how I shot in my 20s, merged with the dramatic form I learned in my 30s. I put away the conventional film grammar and started to experiment, using documentary film grammar in projects that weren’t documentaries but murders. Then in my 40sI moved towards commercial pieces. Somehow, that hybrid collision became my point of view. The most important thing as a filmmaker, the hardest journey you’ll have, is to find your point of view. What is the film only you can make? There are some filmmakers that are geniuses and their point of view is there from the get-go. For most of us, it’s a process of maturing, of trial and error, of being lucky enough to work with people who make you braver than you could ever be on your own. And slowly but surely you become who you are at your core. This is who I am. My films express me, my sense of rhythm, my sense of impact, my sense of kinetic energy. I like films to move, but I like also clear storytelling and characters, and most of all I like authentic emotion. If you can do that and put it in a landscape that people can understand in the world, it gives a lot of power to your film making.
DEADLINE: How did your style mesh with Captain Phillips?
GREENGRASS: I remember reading Billy Ray’s screenplay. I thought, that’s a great story, there’s so much here. The first draft was very close to the book, it told the story of Rich Phillips interwoven with his wife’s experience in Vermont. We all felt that, no, our movie’s set on the water and then it became a process of, let’s step back from the screenplay and get the heart of this. We spent hours just getting the facts straight. What did the military actually do, how does that work? What really happened in the end? What what what what what? We decided to set the whole thing on the water. You have to cut a six- or seven-day ordeal down to two hours, and there are compromises you make while still being true to the story. You end up with a screenplay you believe in and then you go shoot. And that is where you explore it as a siege story, a kidnap story, a crime story. I felt it we just told that story with as much intensity and believability as possible, the larger picture would take care of itself and the humanity would come out so powerfully. And when Tom Hanks is in the infirmary and he’s processing all of this, to me is a superb job of acting.
DEADLINE: What did his display of processing terror mean to you?
GREENGRASS: It’s so moving. What it speaks to is, humanity endures. The world is complex, confusing, vile and overwhelming. But in the end, we’re going to be okay, and feel the compassion of humanity. The question at the outset was, is everything going to be okay. In the end, you regret that it turned out that way; the Navy didn’t want to kill people, they just wanted them to give up. Tom Hanks in the end embodied the answer; it was going to be okay. You asked about the links between this and 93? I’ve got children. To any father, the world seems impossibly challenging. You can’t get on an airplane without worrying about this and you can’t pick up a newspaper without worrying about that. But in the end, I believe that we’ll be okay. You look at your children and you know that your children will do what we tried to do when we were young. I’ve made many films about dark subjects but I don’t think any of them are dark films.
DEADLINE: Even Bloody Sunday?
GREENGRASS: No, on the contrary. That film was about a dark day in ’72 that did more than probably any other single event made irreversible the journey to bloodshed and conflict, which lasted for a generation. I made it because so many people like me spent a great deal of time in Northern Ireland when it seemed like it couldn’t possibly be any other way. Here we are with this dark day and we were able to make a film about British people, fallen soldiers, and people from all over came together and we made a film together about that day which created a narrative that we all agreed had to be something like this. In that moment we were able to agree about history. It became ultimately a kind of inspiring film and we were lucky U2 gave that song in the end. I never want to make films that are bleak. I don’t believe I’ve ever made a bleak film. And for Tom, this film kind of goes to humanity and to belief that everything’s going to be okay.
DEADLINE: I re-read your pitch from United 93 every year because it is such a pure passion plea to make a film burning inside you. What triggered such creative fire?
GREENGRASS: I remember vividly that I wrote it in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London. Now, 7/7 it wasn’t as large a loss of life as 9/11, but at the time it looked like it could be of catastrophic proportions. I was in my office and somebody came over and said, you need to put on the television. They first say there was a bomb in the subway, then two, three and four, or three subways and a bus. You get the little ones off to school, but my son, a teenager at the time, was out and about. I remember speaking to his mom. Like so many people did that day, you have that terror for an hour or two. He couldn’t have been on one of those, could he? Turns out he’d gone to a friend’s house, and he was fine. But for a couple of hours…I remember later that day saying, I’m going to write this thing. What is going on in our world is so intense and so frightening and so throwing the axis of our world off, that I must explore it. I must find a way of talking about it. I’ve got to go to the heart of it, where it began, and what I’ve got to do is say, what does it mean? I’m not interested in what people tell me it means, I’m not interested in what politicians tell me it means, I’m not interested in what we fear it means. As best we can, if we can make a film and start at the beginning, the struggles for the control of an airplane. That was the heart of it. What does that mean for our world? And next day, I wrote that document. That was July, and we sent it out and I was shooting that film by the end of the year.
DEADLINE: Your Martin Luther King Jr project Memphis is a strong tribute to the final days of a great man, but you injected a ticking clock procedural with the federal lawmen that dogged Dr. King chasing his killer before he fled. When are we going to see this movie?
GREENGRASS: You’ll definitely see it, I’m just not quite ready to do it yet. I don’t think it will be next. I didn’t want Memphis to come out when it was all about the King of ‘I have a dream.’ There’s an arc to that very great life, somewhat the reverse of Mandela’s life. 1963 was a moment of transcendent oratorical achievement that in the following year ushered in busing rights and other civil rights acts. I was more interested in the King of 68, very late in his life, when I think he was having a crisis of faith. That felt real to me. My family, on my father’s side, is strict Baptist. I understand the valleys and the mountains of growing up with that, in a British context. The way I see it is, any time between now and four or five years’ time it will be time to make that movie. I also need to meet the actor who’ll play him.
DEADLINE: What is stopping you and Matt Damon from giving us another Jason Bourne film?
GREENGRASS: I can’t speak for Matt, but I agonized for a long period of time about it. In the end I felt I had given it my all in two films I’m very proud of and didn’t want to make another if I didn’t believe it could be as good if not better. The problem with franchise films is, if you do one too many that is not good, you’ve ruined the whole thing for yourself. I couldn’t come up with an idea, and the business reality of franchises is that when a studio has a Bourne, they’re obliged to make one every couple of years. I discovered in my heart I didn’t have another one in me. I would be going through the motions and I could never do that. On the first two Bourne films, I gave 1000 percent commitment. I was full of new ideas when I came in and took over, I knew there were things I could do and had a vision. The best thing was to move on, have someone else come in and make their mark on it.
DEADLINE: The tough part is, Matt has said he won’t make another without you. You’ve said with these movies, you’ve said you ask, what’s this about? You answered that with Bourne Ultimatum. You can’t come up with another question?
GREENGRASS: I sure did agonize. I owe Universal and that franchise a great debt, and your instinct is to want to serve the studio. But you get to a place where the desire to serve the studio conflicts with your own desire to move on and stake out new ground. If you’re going to have a long career in this business, you’ve got to try new things or you very quickly become predictable and stale. The two were in conflict. True story. I was in London and veering toward not doing the film, and I knew it wasn’t going to please a lot of people, or myself. I walked out of the tube going to Oxford Circus. There were these big huge posters with big movie stars on them. I rounded the corner, wrestling with this decision, and I see this big picture of Matt as Jason Bourne. Underneath is the quote from Bourne Ultimatum, ‘I remember everything. I’m no longer Jason Bourne.’ I remembered shooting that scene and being absolutely vociferous we had to say that, that he had to remember everything. He remembered a bit in Identity, a bit more in Supremacy, and this had to be the scene that came at the end of Bourne Ultimatum. For it to be truly satisfying, he had to finally get to that place. It was like that line spoke directly to me at that moment, and I realized finally I’d gotten to the end of the road. Somebody else could find a way to do it, I hope they do and that the franchise prospers; but I knew it wasn’t going to be me. I’m completely at peace with it. I look back now and think, if I’d done my third film, and hadn’t done it well, I’d have been really upset. I wouldn’t be at peace with it the way I am now.