EXCLUSIVE: Oscar-nominated filmmaker Paul Greengrass is known for his urgent cinematic style — from the Jason Bourne movies to the real-life issues he has tackled in films like United 93 that mix his documentary roots with topics that represent world-altering events. His latest film, 22 July, which screens in competition today here at the Venice Film Festival, deliberately takes the pace down a notch to examine the aftermath of the 2011 Norway Attacks that left 77 dead when a far-right extremist detonated a car bomb in Oslo before carrying out a mass shooting at a teen leadership camp on the nearby island of Utoya.
With the film, the thoughtful, articulate and passionate Greengrass does cover the attacks themselves, then tells the story of what unfolded in their wake from the reactions of the government to the long trial and the story of one young man, Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), who suffered severe injuries and came out the other side to face terrorist Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie) in court. It’s a story of heroism in the face of terror that Greengrass felt needed to be told, particularly in light of the rise of hard right forces in the intervening years.
22 July is also the first time Greengrass is working with Netflix, which will release it globally online and in select theaters on October 10. I spent time recently with Greengrass to discuss what led him to focus on this tragedy, the delicate balance it required, why cinema has a responsibility to stay connected to the world and what moviemaking brings out in him. Below is our chat.
DEADLINE: Did you think that after United 93 you would be making another movie about a terrorist attack? You must have hoped you wouldn’t.
PAUL GREENGRASS: I definitely thought about that. I’m always for hope. I’m a hopeful person. It started because I wanted to make a film about the migrant crisis, but the more I worked on it, the more it became clear to me that there was the migrant crisis as a human experience and then there was the migration crisis and the economic state and politics in the West and we were seeing this explosive growth of the extreme right. So I sort of came to the view that what I wanted to do was something that was about how politics was changing, and that led me to the Breivik case because it seemed to be an inciting moment.
DEADLINE: How closely did you work with the familes?
GREENGRASS: You can’t make a film like that without the families. It’s very much like with United 93. I did some work, I read Asne Seierstad’s brilliant book One Of Us and I could see a film that I wanted to direct. But that only gets you to the point of saying, “Well, can I?” There is the 22 July support group which is a very organized group that represents almost all of the families of the people affected. They have a board and I went to see them to say this was what was in my mind, what do you think? That’s very like how i did it with United 93. If at that point people say, “Please don’t,” you wouldn’t.
In actual fact, the very first person that I went to see before I went to see the 22 July group was (former Prime Minister Jens) Stoltenberg. I thought that before you approach the families, I wanted to speak to somebody who had obviously been very, very solicitous of how they felt and I thought a politician would be extremely cautious.
I walked into his office and I’ll never forget it, he said, “I really think you should make this film.” So that had a huge effect on me. Then I went to see the family support group and you find that we who have not suffered, you know thankfully not been caught up in these situations, want, desire, need very strongly for them to disappear and life to continue as normal. But if you are caught up, your life is irrevocably changed by being the victim or family member, your life is turned on an axis. And far from wanting to forget, what you thirst for is to find meaning, not to forget. I’ve seen that time and again.
And in respect of this particular group of people, the overwhelming feeling that I got from meeting many of them is a profound sense that the threat has got worse. It has metastasized and we’re not paying attention to it. That’s the picture they paint, they join the dots up across the West… You make these films in consultation with people.
DEADLINE: And yet you’re not making a documentary.
GREENGRASS: No, no. It’s a movie, you’re making it with them, consulting them, telling them how you intend to do what you’re going to do. But in the end, you can’t use that as a shield… That’s the only way I’ve ever done it. It’s always meant that in the past when people feel that it was a worthwhile experience for them, it makes you feel that you’ve done good work.
I enjoy cinema of all kinds. I love a Disney movie, I love a big action movie, I like small films about small personal things, you know all sorts of movies by all sorts of people. But I believe that cinema, part of what it has to be is to stay connected to the real world. To dare to look at it clearly and intentionally.
Not every film could be like that and I think in troubled times as we live in, it’s important because it’s what keeps cinema alive and relevant and allows it to pursue its other missions. Part of cinema’s mission is to entertain us, of course.
DEADLINE: You’ve said in the past that United 93 wasn’t intented as entertainment, and I suspect that’s the same here. Did you do a mission statement in any way similar for this film?
GREENGRASS: At the outset, I didn’t. I wrote a treatment, which was sort of similar in a way I suppose. A lot of what I thought about that film applies here and was very much in my mind in terms of process. Obviously, you don’t make these films to entertain. You make them because it’s what’s going on in the world and it’s appropriate from time to time for me, given my background who was out in the real world and engaged with it — it’s part of the wonderful mission of cinema.
It has a broad mission of which the largest part is entertainment for sure. Why? Because it goes back to the roots of cinema. Cinema was a cheap, affordable entertainment choice for people with very, very hard lives and so to see movies showed them the best of themselves and took them away from hard lives. It also gave them insight. I believe in cinema, still I think part of its broad mission is from time to time to look and see what’s going on and then it’s about can you find a moment in a crowded kaleidoscopic world. Can you identify moments that truly give you the DNA of the times and I felt that about this.
I felt that it does go to some of these core issues that are in play in at the moment as well as being a great human story because I wouldn’t do a film that was being nihilistic. What I love about it is it’s about people who fight for democracy, who fight to survive and that’s what we’re going to have to do.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about your portrayal of the trial.
GREENGRASS: All of those lawyers and the judge, the entire process and cross currents, [are asking] “Is Breivik sane? Should he be able to speak?”. Those were complicated issues. We shot those scenes in the actual courtroom, it was very important.
There are moments in American and in Western culture where important work is done to protect democracy, to protect the rule of law… Never let it be said that Breivik was not given a fair trial — and he was in control of that trial for a long time. The way they structured it, they trusted in the rule of law.
That process, in miniature, in that courtroom was a fundamental civics lesson for me in how we must confront these people. We must look carefully and clear-eyed at what it is they think they’re doing.
DEADLINE: With regard to Breivik, was there a concern that by having him speak in the film it was dangerous to give him a platform?
GREENGRASS: There is a threshold issue which I had to think about before I made the film. The issue is this: Do you, in making this film, give Breivik and those who support him, a platform that it’s important to deny? That’s a threshold issue and it’s one that I thought very carefully about. I understand what you mean.
I felt strongly in the end after a lot of thinking about it, reading it and meeting people that the much larger danger lies in ignoring and not confronting these ideas. Now, why did I feel that so strongly? Because it’s so obvious to me that there is this protean dynamic rising tide of nationalism, tribalism, nativism. Democratic politics are swinging hard to the right across the West and it’s being driven, I would feel, by static wages and large scale migration — globalism in other words is giving us a perfect storm of no growth down at the bottom and high rewards at the top, and enormous unprecedented population movements.
Those factors are driving, in my view, and I think most people would agree, this unprecedented hard move to the right and with that are the darker forces of the committed right wing revolutionaries. They’re neo-nazis, they’re fascists, they’re alt-rightists. Breivik was part of the brith of the alt-right in Europe. That’s one of the things that makes him such an interesting figure. The alt-right is connected, young, dynamic and they’re in the business of revolution, and this enormous move towards nationalism and nativism across the West. Under that, inside, these very dangerous forces are being incubated.
Breivik was one of the first manifestations of that. It’s a judgement call. I felt and feel very strongly and am convinced that these are unprecedented developments in my lifetime. I was was born in the 50s, I was a kid in the 60s and I became an adult in the 70s. We’ve had twists and turns in politics, but we’ve never had this profound shift to the right with, incubated inside it, these very, very virulent fast-growing hard right forces. And to ignore them, to close our eyes and our minds and our cinema to them on the basis that if we show them for what they are somehow we will give them succor when they’re already climbing over the ramparts of battlements of democracy, I think is to get it wrong.
That was just my view, but in the end what was decisive for me was to talk to those families… There was never a person that I met caught up in those events who utilized that argument. I see its force, I’m not denying it’s a consideration, it’s a profound consideration. But I was struck by the wisdom, the conviction, the passion of those who understand because they’ve lived through it. They were of the view we have to talk about it.
Those in the end are my views but, of course, in the making of the film, I think it’s very important that he seemed to lose. I wanted to make a film about how Norway overcame the threat. How they struggled to prevail against him through the rule of law, through the practice of democracy and the essential truth of family life.
The point is that democracies must, in my view, always wage the struggle to justify their existence. They must never become complacent that the rule of law is eternal, that the practice of democracy will always be there. The truth is, there are always great challenges and democracies have to win those fights and those fights have to begin on the level of ideas. What I wanted was to show in essence what those choices are.
DEADLINE: And looking at it through the prism of today, the foundations seem to be crumbling…
GREENGRASS: I remember reading the Breivik argument early on and thinking it’s extraordinary that so much of what he said, which would have been outré then, is now part of mainstream political discourse. His arguments about elitism, immigration the sham of democracy.
DEADLINE: That’s terrifying.
GREENGRASS: It’s terrifying. Once you get the arguments lodged in there and they are not combatted powerfully, you’re in trouble, I think. So let us show these arguments. We have to look at this stuff and we have to fight it and we have to find ways of combatting it that are true to our values. To me, the extraordinary thing about Viljar is that he found a way in his honesty, in his strength, in his suffering, and in his commitment he found a way to counter that argument and that’s what I wanted to convey.
At a time when it feels like [the foundations] are crumbling, in that place then, they didn’t and they won’t for us either. I believe, I hope. That’s why you make the film, that’s why for me it’s about a young man who suffers but he gets through, and he’ll be a politician.
DEADLINE: How does Jens Stoltenberg, who was Norway’s Prime Minister at the time and is now Secretary General of NATO, figure?
GREENGRASS: This dedicated extremist (Breivik) raised the standard of rebellion because that’s what he was doing and of course he thought he was doing 9/11. He wanted to bring the building down and it’s about how people reacted it’s about how a politician reacted, in this case Stoltenberg.
Jens is a immensely popular figure in Norway, he is very widely admired for his handling of the attacks. What he did was find words again and again and again. I only show one small part, a version of the press conference that night, his first response.
But he found words and eloquence that expressed Norwegian identity in the face of these attacks and not in a party political sense. He found the words and words are tremendously important in the aftermath of these attacks. They’re never more important in a democratic politician’s armory than when a society is in extremis. Churchill in the middle of the war, Roosevelt in the 1930s. He did something of that order. Bear in mind, Norway considers itself to be a peaceful society, it was such an unbelievable trauma.
It really struck me that he was like any democratic politician faced with a massive act of terrorism. You’re compelled to respond on the level of national security. But how do you do that whilst preserving the liberties you’re charged to protect?
It was very clear to him as the crisis unfolded that something had gone wrong in the response, in the fact that it could occur and, of course, when you’re the Prime Minister, although you’re pulling levers, you’re like an airline pilot. You don’t know what’s going on in the avionics. I tried to convey that in the film… He felt that there was a fair degree of institutional unwillingness to accept blame, and he understood it was essential to accept responsibility.
He never lost that bond with the families. He still hasn’t stopped meeting them. He came to a screening of the film last week with the support group.
DEADLINE: You’re speaking to the rule of law, challenges to democracy, not being complacent; things you are passionate about. Could you have conceived of a story like this as a fiction?
GREENGRASS: I think these kind of stories have a strength from being drawn from reality. I do think if you choose the right moment and you study it in miniature, you can see the kind of DNA of our times in it. You can see the truth magnified.
For sure, you could have [made a fiction]. I’m sure I’m not the only filmmaker propelled and driven by what’s going on. Cinema is part of the world. The practice of cinema occurs in the world, it’s marinated in the world and that affects the visions of filmmakers often in ways you can’t entirely predict or foresee. I think given my particular background, and you always want to put your own small brick in the wall, I felt that this story reflected a larger truth.
DEADLINE: Why the decision to do 22 July in English?
GREENGRASS: I felt that the story is universal. It’s absolutely the story of Norway then, those people in that situation. But it’s really about us now. What I wanted was to work with Norway’s creative community and to be a part of telling Norway’s story to the world. They have so much to say to us all. Now, the rules were Norwegian cast, Norwegian crew. Then you get to the language issue. I discussed it with everybody. At one point, I thought very seriously of doing two simultaneous versions but in the end we felt it’s a story for the world. It was certainly something I discussed with the support group.
DEADLINE: How did you determine how to handle the violence in the film?
GREENGRASS: It was a very important issue because when you make these films, it’s the same with 93, you’ve got many responsibilities. You’ve got a responsibility to tell the truth. Obviously it’s a movie, so you have to distill a complex event.
We talked about the violence with all the people and what they saw very clearly and absolutely articulated for me was, “We don’t want this sanitized, we’re not having you make a film where there is no sense of what actually happened.”
On the other hand, you don’t want to be able to identify people other than like Viljar, so you’ve got a responsibility to be respectful to your audience. It’s not about the attacks, it’s about the aftermath. That balance must always be guided by discretion.
DEADLINE: Is there editorializing in the distillation of it?
GREENGRASS: You try not to. You have a responsibility to do your moviemaking in a way that is respectfully truthful and not loaded and I believe that people know the difference. It’s not about whether this or that happened or is in that room, it is the overall effect of “Is this movie truthful or is it trying to steer?” That’s propaganda.
It can never be even the faintest shadow, but if we all do our work well and responsibly, maybe we can make a film that if you close your eyes and look at it like a picture on a wall you’ll go “yeah.” That’s what your aiming for and in looking at it, it makes you understand a bit and think about it and feel about it.
I’m telling my version of your story, your story will always be your story but this is my interpretation.
DEADLINE: How was working with Netflix? Where do you stand on the issue of its films competing in festivals?
GREENGRASS: (Laughs) It would be odd if I said I’m anti it. They’ve been fantastic partners to this film, Scott Stuber and all his team. Part of the reason for going there is they’re expanding the boundaries of theatrical release. I think they are making it essentially analogous to a strong committed art house release, which is what you would expect theatrically for a film like this. This is never going to be a multiplex film, is it?
But what was fantastic from my point of view was they essentially said, “That’s where we want to be, we want to be able to do what an art house release for this film could do” but also link that to the platform with 130M subscribers, most of them young people. That was perfect for this film because I do think that it will get a very large online audience of young people — these are the people I want to see this film. They are simply not going to go to an art house cinema. They’ll come out to a multiplex movie, Black Panther or Avengers or whatever but they’re not going to come out if it’s presented in a way that appeals to people like you and I.
But I wanted to do it because any filmmaker wants to be where the future is. Cinema is going to be experienced by its audiences in many ways simultaneously. But I don’t think that threatens the art of cinema. I think it’s just part of its inevitable change. It behoves filmmakers like me to nudge Netflix, and I don’t think reluctantly cause I think they’re committed to doing it for their own reasons, they want to engage with proper filmmakers and proper filmmakers want their films to be show in in theaters, certainly I do. And they totally understand that, but that’s a challenge for them because of the way cinema is structured.
They feel, I’m sure, on the one hand they’re a mighty beast and on the other they’re locked out the door. It’s a sort of interesting moment for them. I think they’re trying to do the right thing. Of course, they’re a streaming service but it’s the way it’s going. Disney are going to have a streaming service, aren’t they? Universal already has one, it’s called Comcast. Cinema has to go that way not because of corporate manipulation. It’s driven by overwhelming consumer desire globally to control when and how they digest films. But I do not believe that is going to lead to the death of cinema. I think theaters will still exist, it will still be the cheapest and best entertainment ticket out there.
DEADLINE: And what about a return to studio movies, bigger movies? What are you working on now?
GREENGRASS: Nothing at the moment. I have some ideas. It’s interesting, I definitely was surprised. This all happened really quickly. It overtook me. I wasn’t intending to do it. Honestly and truly, films choose you as much as you choose them.
There are lots of things about making movies that are a pain in the ass, but by and large, it’s an absolutely wonderful life and the most blessed thing about it is that you’re really having a conversation with yourself and how you see the world.
DEADLINE: When you do a big studio movie do you take something out of that? Are you able to find some profundity?
GREENGRASS: Yeah, sure. But you’re working in popular culture. I definitely couldn’t make a movie that I didn’t believe in or think was interesting. I’ve loved making big movies and I never realized I was going to be able to do it. When I look at Jason Bourne I see someone who speaks to me.
I think your character comes out in a film. Like on set, it’s the most revealing of occupations. If you tend to be a bully, you’ll be a monster if you make a film. If you tend to be indecisive you’ll be crippled with it. It will amplify whatever you believe in your core or don’t believe in ways that you can’t understand but see later.
DEADLINE: So what does it amplify in you?
GREENGRASS: (Laughs) Obviously when you have a halo it shines even brighter. To be serious about it, I think at the core what makes the job and the life of filmmaking such an unbelievable obsession, to anybody who’s lucky enough to practice it, is in the end you’re always wrestling with yourself, you’re always trying to be the best version of yourself and finding out profound truths about yourself along the way.
So I would say that I’m actually by nature a rather shy, quiet, private person and I have alway found it an existential challenge to be the person that you need to be to go on a film set because you’ve got to interact with people, you’ve got to lead and be decisive. Nature abhors a vacuum and a film set abhors a vacuum even more than nature. You’ve always got to lead. Even if you’re wrong, it’s better to say let’s go this way because you can always change direction.
I’m trying to answer your question by not answering it (laughs).
DEADLINE: I see that…
GREENGRASS: For me that is the big issue. I find that I can be a person on set that I’m not in real life. I have inside a sort of drive or tempo and it beats away inside me. It’s a kind of gotta get on, gotta achieve that, gotta do this. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s like a fire inside, you know? And that unquestionably is hugely amplified. My inner tempo which is always quite high is amplified by filmmaking.
I think you can see that in my films. Forgetting for a moment the subject of this film, one of the things I wanted to do with it was slow my filmmaking right down which I think I did. I had an entirely new creative team and I said at the outset I wanted to slow down.
DEADLINE: It must take a big toll, and then you need a vacation here in the South of France…
GREENGRASS: You do need a vacation… But a film speaks for itself, that’s all it can do. It can only speak for itself and if people watch it, I think they will see that it’s not actually violent gratuitously or nihilistic. What I hope they will see in it is what was in my heart to explore because I don’t think we can close our eyes in cinema to what’s happened.