Follow Us on Twitter

The Bourne Ultimatum - Paul Greengrass interview

Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon at the London premiere of The Bourne Ultimatum

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PAUL Greengrass, director of The Bourne Ultimatum, talks about why he loves the franchise and some of the challenges of filming the big set pieces…

Q. What drew you back to the Bourne franchise for a second time?
Paul Greengrass: Well, because I love the franchise, I love the character and I love the world. I think if you’re making films in Hollywood the franchise bit of the business is very, very important because it’s the gigantic engine that drives it all. If the franchise films aren’t working then we don’t get to do the other films that we want to make. So, when you look at the huge engine room where these big, big movies get made most of them tend to be superhero movies, or movies about characters with magical powers. They tend to be the province of fantasy or comic book based characters.

I love two things about the Bourne franchise: Firstly, I think that from top to bottom every one of us tries their best to make an original, interesting film. That may sound like a bit of an obvious thing to say but it’s very, very easy in the mainstream to have the edges knocked off and end up with something that’s a bit bland and a little bit safe. It’s the thing about the franchise that I’m most proud of and it’s what brought me back. Secondly, the character is not a fantasy character; he’s a real man in a strong contemporary landscape. He’s a character with depth and the world is urgent – the storylines feel like they could be ripped out of tomorrow’s newspapers. When you take that as a package – that desire to create really good, original work in the mainstream and powerful contemporary work in the mainstream that’s what brings me back.

Q. How difficult was the scene at Waterloo from a technical point of view?
Paul Greengrass: Directing a Bourne film is chaos like you’ve never ever seen, believe me! But the reason for that is the Bourne films are a very interesting collision between a sort of indie mentality, which is where [original director] Doug [Liman] would come from, and the mainstream Hollywood mentality. The problem when you come to make the third film is that by the end of Supremacy it’s clearly a very, very successful commercial franchise, so the Hollywood bit of is very well entrenched.

So, coming into the third one it was all about how do you get the indie thing to live? Well, one of the ways you do it is to try your luck and set the action in places where you can’t behave like a big movie… because there’s a temptation when you have a big movie to put the picket fence up, put the trucks inside, build the sets and you operate in a very efficient manner. But if you set the action sequences in places like Waterloo or Tangier or even on the streets of New York you can’t behave like a big movie; you’re forced to sort of be a bit like a student film and make it up as you go along, live on the land and shoot when people are around. But I think that shows. I think it gave us a kind of vitality.

Q. Is the technology used by the CIA in the film actually possible?
Paul Greengrass: Well, the Echelon thing is real, the key word tracking. I don’t actually think they can track it quite as quickly as we make out but it’s certainly possible. I also remember thinking when we did the sequence at Waterloo how excellent it would be if they could tap into the camera network. But we said they couldn’t do that because it would be preposterous – and then we checked and realised that they could.

Q. Was there ever talk of an alternative ending, to keep all options open?
Paul Greengrass: I would never support ending the character’s life because to me Bourne is all about certain values. The Bourne franchise, the Bourne character embodies certain values. What I like about the franchise is that Bourne is not about wearing Prada suits and looking at women coming out of the sea with bikinis on. This film really is about finding answers and more time was spent on trying to find the right kinds of answers.

The interesting thing about a Bourne film is that you very often find that because they’re ultimately so simple, they’re also fiendishly difficult when you make them to arrive at that simplicity. I’ve made two of them and very often you’re circling endlessly around a very small number of scenes that you shoot sometimes in four or five different ways. Matt and Joan had a scene that I think we shot four or five different times and places. You’re endlessly re-shooting scenes because you want the piece of the jigsaw – you know you want that piece but it’s finding the exact way to do it rather than shooting lots of different scenes and lots of different stories.

Q. Will you continue working on the themes of fear and paranoia in a post-9/11 world?
Paul Greengrass: I don’t know. I don’t think you ever set out to make a film in that genre and if you do you wait until it’s distilled in your mind. Maybe. You swim in the tide of the world you live in and obviously the films I tend to make are contemporary, so that’s going to dictate how those films are.

Q. Matt Damon has said that if you signed up for a fourth Bourne movie, that would be a case for him doing it as well. So, will there be a fourth Bourne movie?
Paul Greengrass: Um, well it’s not something I’ve actually given any thought to, to be honest. The thing that’s lovely about the Bourne franchise is that so far no decisions have been made cynically or commercially. I remember at the end of Supremacy you could just feel people coming out of the theatres wanting another one. You could just feel it in the audience and they’re the people who should decide that – not me or the studio or anybody else.

If an audience wants another one that’ll be because there are some unresolved questions at the end of this one. They won’t want one if they feel that the story has come to its end. As far as I’m concerned I’m going off and doing another movie so I’m not going to be thinking about Bourne for a couple of years… if ever!

Q. Following the disappointment of not being able to direct Watchmen, will we ever see a dystopian sci-fi epic from you?
Paul Greengrass: I would have loved to have made Watchmen. It will be made and I’ll look forward to seeing it. But you never look back on films that you can’t make, so I wish it well. It’s a great, great, great novel.

Read our review of The Bourne Ultimatum