The M/C Interview: Paul Greengrass takes us inside the ‘Green Zone’

03.12.10 9 years ago

I can’t really claim to know Paul Greengrass, but we’ve had a few encounters over the years, and I think he’s a provocative and fascinating filmmaker, a guy who is pursuing a personal style in a major mainstream way.  Talking to him is an exercise in being overwhelmed.  Even the person who does my transcriptions after my interviews was a little taken aback.  It’s a delight to have this sort of conversation with a filmmaker this smart, though.  I love that he’s this passionate about what he does, and even if he’s moved on now from the Bourne series, I’m sure that whatever he does in the future is just as worth your attention as his new film, “Green Zone,” is.

I hope you dig this as much as I enjoyed doing this.

Paul Greengrass:  Hello?

Drew:  Hello, Mr. Greengrass.  How are you, sir?
Paul:  I”m very, very good.  How are you?
Drew:  Very good to speak with you again.
Paul:  And you.  We spoke after “Ultimatum,” didn”t we?
Drew:  After “Ultimatum,” and then I saw you at the early, early screening of “Green Zone” last year.
Paul:  Oh, right.
Drew:  I have to say, it”s interesting for all the time that”s passed between, it still very much feels like the same film I saw at that point.  And it…
Paul:  Is that a bad thing?
Drew:  Not at all.  I really enjoyed it the first time and it just feels like you really squeezed it.  Like it just got tighter and…
Paul:  Tighter and faster and clearer, I think is what I would say.
Drew:  Yeah.  Your post process… you”re well known for finding your film as you work, that you are a person that really likes each of the steps of the process to further hone what it is you”re saying with the picture and what the film is.
Paul:  Sure.
Drew:  Can you talk about how you are in pre-production versus how you shoot and how loose that is kept?
Paul:  I agree with that, but of course it has a caveat that is quite boring from my point because I”d hate it to be thought of that I was some sort of irresponsible maniac running around with not a clue in my head ’till I start shooting what I”m going to do, so I”d agree with the proposition but with that caveat.  You see what I mean?
Drew:  Oh absolutely.
Paul:  You have to start with a screenplay.  Every film that I”ve ever made going way, way back before I made movies in Hollywood, you have to have a screenplay.  And most of the films I”ve made, but not all and not this one, most of them I”ve written myself.  So the screenplay, in this case written brilliantly by Brian Helgeland, is the first draft of the film, and before that is Rajim Chandrasekaran’s book.  And you start with a broad set of ideas before you even write a word.  Brian and I were going back and forth, you know?  And the proposition in front of us was to make a film because I felt that whole search for the WMD those first few weeks was such an exciting, mysterious, conspiracy laden kind of place to be, you know?  What if we could make a thriller that sort of unlocked that?  Wouldn”t that be an exciting film to go and watch, right?  And very quickly we were honing in on the idea of what”s great about that is you have a hero with a noble cause and a heroic mission.  There’s Miller basically who”s come to a remote part of, you know, the country with a piece of paper that says go to such and such and such and such and there you will find the following terrible weapons.  And in a sense, he speaks for all of us.  We all went on that journey.  You know what I mean?
Drew:  Yeah.
Paul:  We”ve all… that was what we knew.  We were all told they were there and we were all told we”ve got to go and get them and it fell to people like Miller to be the guys who were put in harm’s way who had to go and get them, right?  And what always struck Brian and I was what a fantastic setup to a thriller is they go charging in through all the danger and the chaos and all of that stuff and open the door or dig the hole or whatever it is they do, and there”s nothing there.  Right?  Well, obviously you”re going to ask if you”re that guy the same question, the very same question, that we all asked which is hang on a second.  How come? And that always struck us as a brilliant premise for a thriller because with sort of a thriller, you always want your hero on some level to be searching for the truth, you know?
Drew:  Right.
Paul:  And that gave us an everyman with a great and noble mission.  I want to find out why this fuck up happened, excuse my French.  You know what I mean?
Drew:  It is a great premise for a thriller and you”ve used what we really know happened, plus your characters and the composites in the film are very interesting.  How careful were you about using real names, real moments, and then building your film around it?
Paul:  Well, what I wanted was to create everyman and walk him through the real world as it really existed with those real great intrigues and struggles of the CIA versus the Pentagon and the pragmatists versus the idealists and all this kind of dangers and conspiracies and weirdnesses of the Green Zone.  And have this kind of lone hero getting into more and more danger searching more and more desperately for the truth until finally you get on the other side and you understand this was kind of just a collision of terrible kind of forces that led to all the difficulties that we”ve experienced, and then walked your hero out the other side.  And that sort of gave you a classic… a classical sort of shape to a film really.  And then it became about, well, that”s going to give us fantastic access to action set pieces and driving adrenaline drenched sequences and also marry it with this very real world background.  So what you get is a sort of a proposition that I feel very comfortable with.  You know, basically here”s Matt.  We”ve made those two movies together, the Bourne movies, which in the end people enjoyed, I think, because they were a sort of a very familiar genre, the sort of action-thriller genre, the conspiracy action thriller genre, but we sort of brought together a few elements that felt fresh.  So in other words, it was the intensity of the action.  The intensity of the performances.  The ripped from the headlines kind of storylines.  And the strong contemporary feel… it all sort of adds up to a very fresh proposition that people liked, right?  So you sort of go, well, in the end if you take it one step further and go to the real world, like let”s say Baghdad, you can create a similar sort of mixture of elements and let”s see how that feels.  Okay, it”s not Jason Bourne obviously, not at all, because it”s not that sort of film but it”s going to have some of that flavor and maybe appeal to a broad audience.  That was always our intention.
Drew:  Well, it definitely feels like this lives in the place right between “Bloody Sunday” or “United 93” and the Bourne films.
Paul:  Yeah, I would agree with that.
Drew:  Where you have really brought together both sides of what you”ve done and there are collaborators of yours that return to this film.  Barry Ackroyd and Christopher Rouse, guys you”ve worked with a few times.
Paul:  And Dominic Watkins who worked with me on “Supremacy,” of course.
Drew:  Are they really key to your process?
Paul:  Oh yeah.  I would say Brian Helgerland because we go back a long way.  As I say, we worked together on “Supremacy,” and he kind of was with this film from first day to last.  Christopher Rouse because both he and Brian are kind of… when you say about my free style, they”re working with me to create this rigidity at either end of the process.  So there”s rigidity of screenplay going in so I have the confidence then to make it very bendable and malleable in the shoot, right?
Drew:  Right.
Paul:  And then rigidity at the other end in the cutting room.  So you”re kind of… the freedom and the looseness of the process does not… that”s why I was saying it doesn”t come out of nowhere.  It comes from a place of extreme structure going in and extreme structure going out.  And that”s why, I think, when people sort of talk about, oh your style, I think what they”re referring to is the marriage of two very contradictory elements in one.  That”s to say on the one hand the extreme sort of immediacy of the performances that feel very real, very captured.  You know what I mean?  Very in the moment.  Very loose if you like.  But married to very, very focused and direct, fast moving accurate storytelling.  And I think those two elements come from my process being the marriage of those two contrary principles.  Structure and rigidity on the one hand and freedom and bendability, if you like, on the other, but you can”t have the one without the other.  Too much structure and you don”t get that immediacy; too much immediacy and you don”t have that structure.  So it doesn”t always work but what I”m trying to do from the first moment to the last of the film and when you talked about it hadn”t changed but it felt tighter and tauter, that final process… you”re trying to capture the best of both.  Do you know what I mean?  The story is absolutely clear and the action sequences are absolutely clear and yet the immediacy and the power… because people love being in a movie that feels immersive, so  it feels like it”s sort of happening as you watch.
Drew:  Very much so.
Paul:  You”ve got to bring those two elements absolutely hopefully to an optimum balance.
Drew:  Well, how do you approach staging an action sequence?  Because it really is… there are few guys right now who I would trust more inherently with making me feel like I”m in the middle of that moment.  Not like I”m watching it at a remove but by the end of your action sequences, and in particular the final chase in this movie when they”re going after Al  Rawi, when both Jason Issacs and Matt Damon are going after him, and Al Rawi is running from them, that moment is so chaotic but crystal clear as we”re watching.  That seems almost impossible to get my head around.
Paul:  Well, that was the big… there”s a lot of action in that movie but obviously that”s the final sequence and it”s about 20 minutes long.  It”s the longest, I”m pretty sure, action sequence that I”ve ever constructed.  It begins with like all action, you”ve got to have a very clear idea firstly of what it is that you want your character… how you want your character to change through the action.  Secondly, what the narrative of your overall action piece is going to be and then thirdly, you”ve got to design your action according to rules.  You know, Spider-Man and Batman can do certain things in action because they”re Spider-Man and Batman, but Jason Bourne couldn”t and that Chief Miller couldn”t even more.  You know you”ve got to be true to the character.  In other words, if Chief Miller suddenly started diving like a superhero, it would be contradictory to the world and your audience will never buy action where you break your own rules.  Do you see what I mean?
Drew:  Absolutely.
Paul:  What they love in action sequences is when you, I think… this is my view for whatever it”s worth.  I think they love it when you”re very scrupulous about obeying your own rules and yet squeeze out of tight corners, do you know what I mean?
Drew:  Oh, yeah.
Paul:  In other words, how the hell is that hero going to get out of trouble now?  Well, if he suddenly grew wings and jumped over the wall, that wouldn’t work, but if he can do something that”s within the realm of the possible for the character that they see and he”s giving his all to do it, and he”s using his brains as well as his brawn, then they find that incredibly immersive and exciting because they”re making decisions with them.  So I”d say that.  Then I would say you have to have, for an action sequence, you know a fantastic… you”ve got to have scale.  You”ve got to conceive of action sequences at a scale so that you”re truly immersed in an unfolding world and that”s the end, you know, of… I mean, it”s got a huge amount of elements.  There”s the helicopters chasing them, and then there”s the cars racing through and then the fort and the underground fort and the confrontation between Miller and Briggs and the Special Forces guys getting there and then setting up for the battle and then the chase and the helicopter and then the chase then becomes cars going to get lost and then the foot chase and then the final climatic piece.  So you”re trying to lay out element after element and it must always be different and developing and then you”ve got to build into that the peaks and the troughs.  When to let it go and when to accelerate.  It”s… out of that, really, you”re… I often think when I”m doing these things, you know, they take months to design and conceive and shoot and you don”t always get them right at first.  You”ve got to look at them.  What”s wrong with this?  Well, maybe if we did that, you know?  It”s a constant process of organically trying to reach the vision that you have at the outset, if you see what I mean?  But I always think of them as like gigantic… almost like Olympic sports.  They”re like Olympic contact sports because that”s kind of what they are.  You”re looking at people performing physically to the maximum that they possibly can and also it”d be a contact sport.  So it”s a constant process of pitch and strike and rebound and regroup and replan and strive, and it”s got this constant feeling of collision and unfolding drama.  And if you can do that whilst keeping your foot absolutely to the floor but yet making sure at every step…and you said you saw it earlier.  Well, now, it”s about examining literally every single frame of a twenty-minute unfolding sequence across a huge swath of different types of terrain to ensure that the audience will know exactly at any one time what one of those characters is thinking, feeling or trying to do and how that impacts the other characters in that sequence.  Does that make sense?
Drew:  Oh, absolutely.  I love the fact that early on….
Paul:  And to do that… directors get praised when they get it right and pilloried when they get it wrong.  But the truth is when it goes right, it”s usually to do with the unbelievable contributions of, in my case, the actors involved in that sequence who physically and intellectually gave me every single thing and more that they had to offer over many, many nights of hard endurance shooting.  Brian Helgeland who helped me conceive and think my way through all the myriad of problems and then obviously my great friend Chris Rouse who just wrestled and struggled with that thing to cut it and make it absolutely fantastic, you know? And of course John Powell who scored all the war movies and gives us yet again another unbelievable propulsive score.  They”re saying I”ve got to go.
Drew:  Oh, okay.  Well, I wanted to thank you, sir.  I think it”s really come together beautifully.
Paul:  Well, let”s see if people go and see it.  You never know.
Drew:  Fingers crossed.
Paul:  All right, mate.  See you later.
Drew:  Take care.
Enough talking to the people who made it.  Next up, I’ve got reviews of “Green Zone” and today’s other big box-office hopeful, “Remember Me.”  Both of those coming up this morning, so you’ll have some idea what to expect if you’re heading out to the theater tonight.
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