Paul Greengrass: 'I might see if I can set up a screening for Blair and Bush'

'Green Zone' Q&A: Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon

By Larry Ryan
Friday 12 March 2010 15:36

If you're feeling glib, you might call it the 'Bourne Baghdad': the third collaboration between Matt Damon and British director Paul Greengrass is a tense action-thriller set in the early days of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq as various elements scramble to find phantom weapons of mass destruction.

The film was reviewed today in The Independent by Anthony Quinn, who described it as "a compelling picture of a ground force trying (and failing) to order a city on the slide towards anarchy," while also noting that the film's high octane action often overshadows any underlying political message.

The director and star got together to discuss 'Green Zone'.

Why was this project the right one for your third collaboration?

Paul Greengrass: The honest truth was that after 'Bourne Supremacy' I wanted to do a film about 9/11 and a film about Iraq because it seemed to everybody that they were the two things driving our world. Also it seemed that those were the events that were driving fear, paranoia, mistrust, all that lethal cocktail of stuff that was coursing around the US and the UK and around the world in the wake of those events. So 93 ['United 93'] became the 9/11 film that we did after 'Bourne Ultimatum', and then we started turning our attention to what became 'Green Zone', which began as a film about the hunt for WMD. We began by wanting to make a film that would be of broad appeal and that creates a set of challenges, and I've no problem about that. The audience that loved the Bourne films, it seemed to me that it was that audience that was being asked to support that war and it was from that audience that you had people who opposed that war. So you had both ends of the spectrum. People were attracted to the films because they had a kind of high octane adrenaline thriller thing, but also because they had a kind of attitude that "oh, they're not telling us the truth" or "we need to find the truth". 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-theory- laden days before and after the invasion. Because somewhere in those events and conflicting agendas all of that stuff started. And that's what begat 'Green Zone'.

Matt, did you have to be persuaded or did the film have immediate appeal for you?

Matt Damon: Oh not at all. It seemed to be fertile ground to make a film from and once we had Rajiv's book ['Imperial Life in the Emerald City'], it seemed that even though we didn't know exactly what the movie was going to be, there was just so much there and so much that was interesting. And the fundamental question was could we make a film that had audience appeal and get a good chunk of that Bourne audience to a film that was about a fictional character in the real world rather than a fictional character in the fictional world.

Discuss working with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on 'The Hurt Locker')...

PG: Well he's a brilliant camera man. I'm delighted that he's getting and continuing to get the recognition for all the outstanding work that he's done. He's worked for Ken Loach for many years and Stephen Poliakoff, and I've been lucky enough to work with him and now Kathryn Biegalow has. His routes go back, like mine, to the endlessly fertile plains of British social realist documentary and that's where he's started, and he's moved steadily and slowly into small British films and now he's starting to make pieces in Hollywood. Whatever the piece is: firstly he has outstanding technical ability. He has tremendous courage - 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 with very little prep. It takes real bottle when you're a Director of Photography [DOP], if your director says "I want to shoot this at real night", and I kept on switching off lights. A lot of people won't go there because it's too risky, but never once; he is up for it as a shot maker and a shot designer. And at the back of it, and this is why he is a great DOP, he has a pitiless and courageous and a moral eye. That is a unique thing. I've worked with him on '93' and this and I'm forever in his debt.

MD: As an actor it's great because he and Paul set up an environment where you have such freedom - there was never a mark that was laid down, they never said you have to go there and say it like this. On the contrary, they're interested in capturing something in real time and they went as far as - which they also did in '93' - normally you're restricted by your camera's film load, which is an 11 minute load; what they did was carry a back up camera so that when one camera would dump they would pick up the next camera and keep going, which allowed the actors and non actors - which there were many - to stay in this heightened reality without stopping to go for a cup of tea or going to the bathroom, and these exercises would carry on for half an hour at a time. It's why the acting is so real, because it is real - it is really unfolding. It's very easy to buy into that reality when you're totality liberated.

Films about Iraq have struggled in the US. Is that something that concerned you?

PG: I think that's right, and worldwide too. It's pointless to pretend that that's not an issue. But it goes back to what I was saying earlier. It always seemed to me to be part of what we can do. In any film you try to have a sense of what you're trying to achieve, and after 'Bourne Ultimatum' the challenge to us was 'can you take a broad audience to this subject?'. It's important to my mind that across the waterfront of cinema in a given year that somewhere along the way, in small ways and large ways, that cinema is alive in ways and engages in the real world. You can't have every film like that - people go to the cinema for different reasons - but in that waterfront of movies you need to have some major pieces that engage directly and feel fuel by what's really going on out there. And that's a real challenge. I've always believed in the possibility of good films in the mainstream. And not just me.

'Dark Knight', which was a hugely successful film, is one of the best films of the last ten years: because its themes and its darkness and its creative ambitions are absolutely huge. But of course it's a gigantically popular Batman movie. There are ways you can do this but you have to engage with genre and you have to be offering a broad audience an identifiable experience that they can understand and offer the promise that they will be rewarded as a cinematic experience and you have to give them that reward. In the end, it's me and it's Matt and people know the sort of films that we have made - that's a certain style of story telling, a certain drive and immersive quality. It will feel like it's unfolding in real time and there are clear characters and a central character with a strong and noble agenda. And it's going to feel like it's addressing what's going on with a point of and an attitude. It's not Bourne and he's not playing Jason Bourne, it's one step into more difficult territory. But those were hugely momentous times and it's a great place to set a thriller. We've got a great story and the greatest movie star in the world, in my view, doing what people love to see him do and I think when people come and see this film they'll be rewarded for taking that step but also I think it will make people talk and that's all great. That's part of what popular cinema can do.

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Matt, any plans to take a break?

MD: I just finished with Clint and that's like taking time off: he shoots no more than eight or ten hours a day and it's very civilized schedule. Much more civilized than Greengrass, let me tell ya! But they're very different types of movies. But I want to direct one day and I can't really turn down the chance to work with the people I get to work with: Paul, Clint, Soderbergh. And I'm going to work with the Coen brothers soon. So can't see myself taking any time off unless the work dries up.

How do you think the film will be received in the US?

MD: I think there's a very different atmosphere in America right now. If you engage any American in a discussion about war right now, Afghanistan probably will be what comes up first. Iraq isn't on the front page. I'm interested in seeing how we do there but whether or not it is at the forefront of everybody's consciousness at home right now, certainly there will be an appetite for this type of film at some point, whether it's when it opens or some time later then that, so basically, we can never predict what the zeitgeist will be two years down the road but we got to make the movie we want to make, so hopefully the studio will be rewarded for the faith they showed in us.

Do you think the success of 'The Hurt Locker' will help or hinder 'Green Zone'?

MD: I have no idea.

PG: I have no idea but I think it's great that 'The Hurt Locker' got made and I'm thrilled it's getting the recognition it deserves. Speaking as someone who's tried to make a film set in that part of the world, anyone else who has done gets total respect from me because it's a hard road. I mean, instinctively, I would say it's part of a general sense now of questioning. There's a sort of "where did it all go wrong?" feeling that emerged in the wake of 2003, 2004. That's a general proposition. It's not whether you were for or against the occupation but many, many people had a sense that something went wrong, that collectively we didn't quite get things right. And one way and another we're struggling out the other side of that. The Chilcott inquiry is part of that, the election of a new president in America is part of a changing mood. But none of these things are hard lines, things don't change over night, but what's interesting cinematically with the emergence of 'Hurt Locker' and 'Green Zone' coming out is part of the mysterious ways popular culture absorbs and processes experiences that occur in the real world and we all are a part of that and that's necessary and right.

What do you think Blair and Bush would get from a screening of 'Green Zone'?

PG: I hope as many people as possible will see 'Green Zone'. 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.

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