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Green Zone - Paul Greengrass interview

Paul Greengrass directs Green Zone

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PAUL Greengrass talks about some of the challenges of making Green Zone, a thriller about the early days of the war in Iraq, for a wider audience and why it’s important to make some blockbuster movies that have social relevance.

He also discusses his admiration for Oscar winning movie, The Hurt Locker and for his Oscar-nominated cinematographer Barry Ackroyd…

Q. Why did you think this particular project was right for your third film collaboration?
Paul Greengrass: After The Bourne Supremacy I wanted to do a film about 9/11 and a film about Iraq because those were the two things that seemed to be to be what was driving our world. Also, it seemed that those were the events that were driving fear and paranoia and mistrust, all that sort of lethal cocktail of stuff that was coursing around the US, the UK and around the world in the wake of those events. United 93 became the 9/11 film, then we did The Bourne Ultimatum and then we started to turn our attention to what became Green Zone, which began as a film about the hunt for WMDs.

Q. So, what were the challenges?
Paul Greengrass: We began by wanting to make a film that would be of broad appeal [to audiences] and that created a set of challenges. It seemed to me, while making Bourne Ultimatum that there were two important things about the audience that loved the Bourne films… first, it was that audience that was being asked to fight that war, and it was from that audience that people opposed that war. So, you had both ends of the spectrum and they were attracted to those Bourne films because they had a high octane, adrenaline, thriller thing, but also because there was an attitude about those films, to do with: “They’re not telling us the truth, I need to find the truth.” So, it seemed to me that we had an opportunity to ask that audience to take one step through the curtain back to the real world, back to the intrigue-filled, dangerous, conspiracy laden weeks immediately before and after the invasion. That in the end, somewhere in that tangled thicket of events and conflicting agendas, was where all that stuff started. That’s really what began Green Zone.

Q. Iraq movies have done badly at box office. Does that worry you?
Paul Greengrass: It’s pointless to pretend that’s not an issue. It goes to what I was saying at the beginning, it always seemed to me to be part of what we could do. In any film you always try to have a sense of what you are trying to achieve in the broadest terms. It always felt to me, after the Bourne Ultimatum, that the challenge for us was to take a broad audience to this subject. It’s important, to my mind anyway, that across the waterfront of cinema in a given year, that somewhere along the way, in small ways and in large ways, that the cinema remains alive and engages directly the world that we live in. You can’t have every movie like that because people, including me, go to the movies for many different reasons… to escape to a fantasy world, to experience love and romance, to laugh. But in that waterfront of movies you need some of your major pieces, your tent-poles, to engage directly and feel fuelled by what’s really going on out there. And that creates a real challenge, but I honestly and truly have always believed in the possibility of good films in the mainstream.

Q. Do you have examples?
Paul Greengrass: The Dark Knight, for instance, is a hugely successful film, and it’s also one of the best films of the last 10 years. Its themes and its darkness and its creative ambitions are absolutely huge, but of course it’s a gigantic and popular Batman movie. There are ways you can do this, but you have to engage with genre, you have to be offering a broad audience an identifiable experience that they can understand and will offer them the promise of being rewarded as a cinematic experience, then you have to give them that reward.

In the end, with this film, it’s me, it’s Matt, they know the sort of films we’ve made, it’s a certain style of storytelling, it’s going to have a certain sort of drive, an immersive quality, it’s going to feel like it’s unfolding in real time, with clear characters and a central character with a really, strong, noble agenda. And it’s going to feel like it’s addressing what’s going on with a real point of view and attitude. If we do that, and I think we have, people will come. It’s not Bourne, but he [Matt]’s not playing Jason Bourne. It’s one step through that curtain into more difficult territory because it’s the real world… it’s Iraq. But those were hugely momentous, dramatic times, so it’s a great place to set a thriller.

We’ve got a great story, the greatest movie star in the world and a fantastic actor doing what people love to see him do. When people come to the cinema they will be rewarded for taking that step, but also it will make people talk. That’s all great. That’s part of what popular cinema can do.

Q. We’ve seen cinematographer Barry Ackroyd get an Oscar nomination this year. What’s it like from a director’s point of view to be on the receiving end of that kind of camera work?
Paul Greengrass: He’s a brilliant cameraman. I gave him an award recently and was really thrilled to do so. I’m delighted he’s getting and will continue to get the recognition for all the outstanding work that he’s done over many years. He’s worked with Ken Loach for many years, Stephen Poliakoff. I’ve been lucky enough to work with him a few times and now Kathryn Bigelow [on The Hurt Locker]. His roots go back, like mine, to the endlessly fertile plains of British social realist documentary. That’s where he started and he’s moved steadily and slowly through to small British movies and now he’s started to make pieces in Hollywood. But whatever the piece is… Firstly, he has outstanding technical ability. He has tremendous courage in many ways.

Q. Such as?
Paul Greengrass: I’ll give you a for instance… when we shot Green Zone there’s a long, sustained, 20 minute section at the end, in pitch black, full tilt action over huge areas. It takes real bottle if you are a DoP [Director of Photography] and your director says I want to shoot this [for] real, at night. I kept on switching off lights. A lot of people won’t go there because it’s too risky. But he’s up for it, both as a shot maker and a shot designer. A third thing, at the back of it, and this is why he’s a great DoP, a world class DoP, he has a pitiless and a courageous and a moral eye. That is a unique thing. I worked with him on [United] 93 and again on this. I’m forever in his debt for his work.

Q. What do you think of The Hurt Locker and will its presence harm Green Zone‘s box office potential in any way?
Paul Greengrass: What I do know is that it’s great that The Hurt Locker was made, and I’m thrilled that it’s getting recognition. Speaking as somebody who has tried to make a film set in that part of the world, anyone else who has done so gets absolutely total respect because it’s a hard road.

If you ask me, instinctively I would say it’s part of a general sense now, there’s a sort of ‘where did it all go wrong’ feeling that emerged in the wake of 2003/4. It’s not whether you were for or against the war, this is a generalised statement, but many people have a sense that something went wrong, that we collectively didn’t quite get things right. Whatever the issue, one way or another we’re struggling out the other side of that. The Chilcot inquiry is part of that, the election of a new president…. None of these things are hard line, things don’t change overnight, but what’s interesting cinematically in terms of the emergence of The Hurt Locker receiving recognition is that this is part of the mysterious way popular culture absorbs the processes and experiences that occur in the real world.

Q. So, what do you think that Messrs Bush and Blair might take away after seeing your film?
Paul Greengrass: [Smiles] I hope as many people as possible see Green Zone. And I’m sure Mr Blair and Mr Bush would find it extremely exciting and dramatic. In fact, I might see if I can set up a screening for them.

Read our review of Green Zone

Read our interview with Matt Damon