If you’re used to the filmmaking style of Paul Greengrass – the director behind three Jason Bourne movies – you can be forgiven if you feel a bit of whiplash when watching News of the World, Greengrass’s new Tom Hanks-starring Western that sets a much more deliberate pace than you might be used to from a Paul Greengrass film. It’s 1870 and Hanks plays a nomad of sorts, a former Union Captain, traveling from town to town reading the latest news to the locals. Along his travels he finds an abandoned young girl (Helena Zengel) who he doesn’t quite know what to do with, eventually trying to reunite her with what’s left of her long lost family.
Obviously, the setting of News of the World has a lot of modern-day comparisons, with themes like a divided country and how we get our news delivered to us being two aspects wreaking havoc on our current world. And it’s not lost on Greengrass that his star, Tom Hanks, the news deliverer in the movie, is one of the most trusted people in the world – to the point this story probably doesn’t work without him.
Though, as we begin, I’m reminded of the last time I spoke to Greengrass, for the harrowing 22 July, where he was pessimistically confident that Donald Trump would be re-elected president. He has some caveats about that wrong prediction but admits today that he feels a little more optimistic. And the proof of his optimism is News of the World.
Last time we spoke we had a long conversation about some awful topics like the rise of right-wing extremists across the world. Then you said, very confidently, “Donald Trump is going to get reelected.” I never stopped thinking about that. It’s nice to talk to you, now, when that officially is not true.
Do you not think Donald Trump would have been reelected easily were it not for COVID?
That’s a very valid point, but he lost and he lost by a lot.
Yep. But a vast number of many, many tons of millions also voted for him, which I think is really scary.
I agree with that, but are you a little more optimistic now than you were two years ago? Or about the same?
It is optimistic. I’m an optimistic person! It seems you were talking about that particular subject because it does inform why I decided to make News of the World But the truth about your country and my country and just about every country in Europe is bitterly divided and split down the middle.
We’re stuck. Those tens of millions of people who voted for Donald Trump aren’t going away anytime soon. They’re not going to suddenly change their mind in January. “No, actually, we think it’s great that Biden’s president.” They’re going to hate Biden. They’re going to hate everything that Biden tries to do. It’s the same with the Brexit thing in (England). The country is split down the middle irretrievably and that is a terrible reality. The question becomes then, how are we going to get out of this position? How are we going to heal? What is the road to healing going to look like? What is it going to feel like? What is it going to teach us? And what are we going to learn from it? That was the question to me coming out of 22 July.
It crystallized, for me, into a desire to make a film that tried to explore what that road to healing might look like. What optimism might look like without being sentimental, without being escapist. I also wanted to make a different sort of film. I wanted to do something that felt different, looked different. I didn’t know what that would be, but those were the sorts of things in my mind.
You accomplished that. It is very different. There is usually a hyper pace to your films.
Yeah. It was a conscious thing. I wanted to explore a slower tempo, but how can you not have a slower tempo if you’re in the Old West? When I read the novel, News of the World, that spoke to me. I sort of saw in it, very clearly, that this journey that the news reader takes with this little girl is that road after division. Okay, 1870, the Shadow of the Civil War. America’s literally divided, but it’s then, but it’s now. He’s just an old news reader. She’s just this little girl who doesn’t know who she is because she was kidnapped when she was a kid. The journey they take becomes mythic and resonates strongly I think. Well, for me, in my mind with Tibet, is a journey towards healing and belonging and redemption and getting to a better place. All those kinds of ideas. That was what brought me to it. Plus it was an opportunity to do a Western, which I’ve got a chance to do. I love those films when I was a kid.
I’m very happy you finally got to do your Western.
Because it keeps you young and keeps you fresh if you do new things. You can’t just do the same thing all the time. But then the challenge becomes, can I do something different that still feels like me? Is it authentic? Am I still being true to me or being authentic to me? That was the thing that I was most proud of with the film, because it does feel different. It is a slower tempo. It is a more classical film in the classical style, if I can put it that way. It felt like one of my films. It just felt like a shift in a good way. I was very pleased I made it.
Here’s my takeaway from this movie: I couldn’t help but think you’re trying to say if we got rid of a lot of the junk media out there and had noble people giving everyone the news that would go a long way. Fox, and now Newsmax and OANN. Tom Hanks’s character delivers the news with empathy instead of trying to stroke fear and anger.
Well, I agree with that. You don’t find equivalence when you make films. If you do you start preaching quite quickly, which is not a good place to be. What you have to do is start with a question, I think. This is my view anyway. If you can frame up the question in your mind, when you film it’s like one extended conversation that you’re having with yourself about what you think about the world and about what’s important to you and about how your views change and how the world changes. One film begets another, but at the start of a film, if you can try and frame up a question to which the film is the answer. You’ll have the best time, and you have the best chance of making an interesting film, I think. The question here was not really about sort of fake news or anything like that. I sort of pushed that to the back of my mind. He’s just a guy in a tradition, by the way of long-standing, of the traveling preacher or the traveling news reader. The traveling storyteller, Mark Twain did it afterwards. Preachers were doing it around America before him. The question is, what does the road to healing look like? What is the road out of this division?
The other madness, or threat, or whatever you want to call it, is COVID. Because COVID strikes at our collective identity as humans. We can no longer gather in our homes and tell stories to each other. We can’t gather in a bar or a cafe or a restaurant or a movie theater or a theater. The way we collect, the way we exchange, the way we connect that calmed the massive threat. This film feels very, very contemporary to me in showing this character who believes the stories, and they are humdrum stories for the most part.
Do you think this movie works without Tom Hanks? In that he’s among one of the most trusted Americans still today? And there’s no way you knew this at the time, but being the first famous person to get COVID.
I agree with you. Certainly, he is perfect for it. It is perfect for him because of that. All movie stars operate. It’s part of the movie-going experience and our understanding of movies is based on our understanding of the movie star. The movies don’t have to be both the actor and the archetype at the same time. Do you know what I mean?
Those two sometimes can fight each other in interesting ways and subvert each other in some ways. Or they can reinforce each other in certain ways: The expectations we have of the archetype of our understanding of who Tom Hanks is as an actor.
I’m curious if you saw Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7. At one point you were going to direct it, but basically said you thought it would be a difficult film to make.
Listen, first of all, I think he did a great job and I’m so glad that he made the film. And it was something he was very passionate about. I think he’s done a far better job than I. In the end, it wasn’t as fresh for me as it was for Aaron, if I can put it that way. That was much more of my issues.
Ah, I see.
He’s done a great job. And it shows if you passionately believe in a subject and you live it and love it in the end, it comes true.
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