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United 93 - Paul Greengrass interview

Paul Greengrass, director of United 93

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PAUL Greengrass, the director of United 93, talks about the reasons he decided to make a film about September 11, 2001, why it’s not too soon and what he thinks of the UK response to July 7, 2005.

Q: How soon after the events did you decide to make United 93?
A. Quite soon after the events, actually. I was finishing Bloody Sunday when 9/11 happened. I remember we closed the cutting room. By the time I came back a day or two later, almost immediately it felt like it was an irrelevant film, this story about the British army in Derry 30 years ago.
But then very quickly it seemed very much more relevant, because it was really about how we had responded to the early Provo campaign of political violence and how we’d got ourselves to this place in early 1972 thinking we need to militarise this thing and sort this out – get tough and that was going to fix the problem. Of course, it absolutely didn’t, it made the problem profoundly worse.
I’m sure that was one of the reasons why that film, which I always thought was about Britain and Ireland, had the international impact it had – because it spoke to that early, post-9/11 world.
It was around about that time that I sort of thought, this is an oblique way of addressing the post-9/11 world, but probably one day I’m going to need to address the thing itself. And it nagged away at me over the years. What was the point of making the films I’d made, particularly in Northern Ireland, if I didn’t then address this much more important, in terms of scale and going forward from here, issue of our times?

Q: Did you always intend to focus on the story of the fourth plane rather than the World Trade Center for example?
A. That always interested me because it was the last plane that took off – it took off late by chance because of the air traffic control delays. It always seemed to me that those 40 passengers were the first people to inhabit our world – the world of: “What are we going to do? What can we do and what will be the consequences of what we do?”
By the time that hijack happened at half-past nine, 9/11 was basically all over. The Twin Towers had been hit half an hour before, the Pentagon was being hit as they were being hijacked – it was all over. That always seemed to be the drama of the thing, the thing that would speak to us.
I thought about doing it before doing The Bourne Supremacy, but I was already committed to writing and producing Omagh, and I owed it to those families. And also it did feel too early, to be honest. The 9/11 Commission was under way, so I thought I’d better wait until that report, that was only right. And then I wanted to have an adventure on Bourne. So once I’d done that, this seemed right.

Q: How difficult was it to walk the line between the families’ sensitivities and keeping the story true?
A. It’s always a tension. It’s the tension at the heart of Bloody Sunday, Omagh and Stephen Lawrence. What I feel is, you have to see that involvement as central to what you’re doing rather than a thing you’ve got to get around.
I’ve said it many times before – when I’ve made films in Northern Ireland – if you want to understand some of the deeper truths around political violence, go and talk to people. Truly, go and talk to people whose lives have been destroyed by it. That’s when you really get to the heart of it. And if you spend time with the Bloody Sunday families, with the Omagh families, with the United 93 families, the extraordinary thing is that you find very little thirst for revenge. Occasionally, you find little pockets of it, but it’s marked by its absence.
What you do find is a great wide variety of opinions because there are always these events, these tragedies and atrocities, and it’s always disparate people united by this common event. But the core questions are the same that lie at the heart of our response to political violence – and they are why has this happened, and what are we going to do?
If you listen to them, that’s what you get. This extraordinary openness, the fact that their lives become changed, the fact that they become the repositories of wisdom in a way that we often don’t have, because they’ve had to engage every day with those problems.
In the past few weeks, I must have been asked 300 times, “is it too soon?” I understand the question but I’ve never been asked it by a family of 9/11. I’ve had many of them say: “Why did it take so long?” And I think it goes to the same issue and that what we’re really asking is: “Is it too soon for us?”
The truth of this is, these events happen – whether it’s 9/11 or Omagh – and when they happen, we pause for a moment, we see the families, we feel sorry for them, we see them as victims and then, frankly, we want them to go away because we want to get on with the rest of our lives. We want to wait for the World Cup, go to the pub, prepare for our summer holidays – we want our lives unchanged and you can see that in the response to 7/7.
But if you’re a family whose lives have been destroyed, changed forever irrevocably, you rage against that. You refuse to accept the victim-hood. You demand to be heard, you demand that we, untouched by it, address the core questions – why has this happened and what are we going to do?
We had a screening of United 93 last night and Rachel North, who’s one of the 7/7 campaigners, came. She’d just come from a meeting with John Reid at the Home Office to ask for an inquiry to allow the families of the victims, and we the citizens of this country, to answer correctly, independently, thoroughly and comprehensively, what happened and why?
You go to America, you make this film, and you cannot but be struck by the fact that the American response to 9/11 was to set up the 9/11 Commission. You cannot read that document and all the millions of words of the supporting documentation and not be impressed at their central commitment as a society to answering the question why? What happened? As a central foundation stone, for making some decisions, about what to do about it.
Yet we in this country accept, in this slumbering way, the pathetic, pitiful response to 7/7. I don’t know if any of you have read that narrative (of) events – it’s a shameful, shameful document. It’s like Lord Widgery’s account of Bloody Sunday and we sit here as a society and slumber through these events. If you’re a victim of 7/7, you rage at it. So this “too soon” thing is about us. We have a massive problem here, and it’s not easy. I don’t have any of the answers, that’s not my job.

Q: What did you bring to this event, that’s essentially an American tragedy, as a British director?
A. There are lots of fantastic directors in America who will make films about 9/11, there’s no question about that. I think what was important for me was the fact that I’d made these kind of films before, in terms of the Troubles, and that my early background was in World in Action, so I’d spent a lot of time in my 20s going to places where bad stuff happens – bloodshed and conflict. It kind of marks you. You just get to feel like you know your way around those things. That was more important than that I was British.
But having said that I did bring the actors to Britain, and that was because I wanted them out of America to be in a single place and create this company feel, and to consider the story freed from any outside factors.

Q: Was there any pressure to make the film in the US?
A. None at all. It was very important that I had that relationship with Universal – I’d done the Bourne film. I wrote a 25-page treatment in June last year, showed it to them, and they just said do it. They’ve done nothing but help me make the film I want to make.

Q: How did making the film affect you personally?
a. It was an amazing experience. I know directors always say that. Making films is bloody hard work and sometimes can be a bit thankless. But then there are experiences where you go into work and you think, ‘this is why I love this job’! Because to gather together at Pinewood, in rooms with 120 people, large numbers of them working actors, but large numbers also air traffic controllers who were there on the day, or military people who were there on the day, or flight attendants, was amazing.

Q. How close to reality are the events you depict on the plane?
A. People always ask: “Did you make it up?” That’s not how it is. You sit there with this range of opinion. Actors don’t make things up, they’re incredibly skilful at unlocking believable truths. You’re sitting on a real aeroplane, as we did in Pinewood. The mythology of United 93 is that they pushed the trolley down the aisle – but that could never have happened.
When I stood on a real 757, as we had at Pinewood, with real trolleys and real United stewardesses and pilots, and were facing two guys, we were penned in. You then say: “What would you do if you thought that guy had a bomb and that he was about to fly the plane into a building, and your only chance was to attack him? Would you get behind a trolley and try and push it down the central aisle?” Impossible. It would bang here and there. Any stewardess will tell you they’re a nightmare to pull up and down, far less chase down. Or would you get your biggest, strongest guy and run at them, because that’ll take you two seconds?
I can’t prove to you that it didn’t happen like that, but I know for sure it didn’t. You sit there and you try and make a thousand judgements like that and finally you end up with a film and you say: “It’s our version of it but we believe, and I know that every person involved in the film, from all those professional opinions, believes that it must have been something very like that.”

Q: What do you think of Oliver Stone’s movie, World Trade Center?
A. The film should be made and all film-makers should make the choices that seem appropriate to them. I can’t speak either way because I haven’t seen the film. I absolutely resent deeply when people condemn my film when they haven’t seen it. I know what it’s like and how difficult it is to make a film about 9/11. He has all my best wishes.

Q: Are you making The Bourne Ultimatum?
A. Yes, we’re on the way. It’s a car chase near you. If you hear the cars roaring by, that’s us!

Read our review of United 93