Getting Direct With Directors...
Paul Greengrass
No.40: Paul Greengrass

Paul Greengrass is best known to audiences as the director of The Bourne Supremacy (2004) (he is currently filming its follow-up, The Bourne Ultimatum). But he is also the highly respected writer/director of films that examine real events in unflinching fashion, including Bloody Sunday (2002), a dramatisation of the massacre of Irish civil rights protesters in 1972, and Omagh (2004), which examined the aftermath of the Real IRA bombing that killed 29 people in 1998. His latest film, United 93, provides a real-time account of the fourth plane to be hijacked on September 11th, 2001, which crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

Here he talks about the British directors that inspired his career, how much he enjoyed The Da Vinci Code and the challenge of tackling controversial issues in his movies.

Why did you become a director?

That's a good question. I suppose it's that old Orson Welles thing about the best train set in the world. My first dream was to work on World In Action to be honest. It was that wonderful eclectic mixture of filmmaking and reportage. That was my training ground. It showed me the world and made me see many things. After I'd done that, it became clear to me in my late 20s that I wanted to tell longer stories, fiction stories and to work on a bigger canvas. So early on, when Film Four started on Channel 4, that's when I got my first break and made my first feature. Then I started writing. It took a while to find anyone willing to trust me, I have to say, but then I had a period when I was doing documentaries. It was on some of those early pieces that I found my feet and thereafter I found my voice. The rest is kind of history.

What do you think you brought to United 93 as a British director examining an American tragedy - albeit one that had tremendous relevance to the rest of the world?

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 kinds of films before, in terms of the Troubles, and that my early background was in World in Action. I'd spent a lot of time in my 20s going to places where bad stuff happens involving bloodshed and conflict. So it kind of marks you. You just get to feel like you know your way around those things. That was more important than the fact that I was British.

If you weren't a filmmaker, what would you be?

Originally I wanted to become a photographer. That was what I thought I wanted to be when I was at school.

What other director would you like to see at work?

Well, the very bizarre thing about being a director is that you never see other directors at work, ever. The odd thing is that when you're on a film set you're surrounded by people who work collectively and who do see each other. If you're an actor, you'll work with other actors and so on. But the director is really the only character who works alone - who by the very nature of the job cannot see anybody else work. But who would I like to see? Well, of course, I'd love to see Martin Scorsese work. I'd love to see Ken Loach working because he's my hero. I would have loved, loved, loved to have seen Alan Clarke work. He remains, along with Ken Loach one of the great inspirations for me. But equally I'd love to watch young and new directors working because it's always interesting as they have totally different perspectives.

What was the last movie you paid to see?

The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code on Saturday night. I went with low expectations because it had been so royally slammed. But I must say I think it was rather harshly judged. What was interesting to me was the cinema was packed at 10pm and I didn't feel the audience went out not having had a reasonable time. They weren't coming out saying this is the greatest film ever but I don't think they were coming out saying the reviewers were right. It lacked a bit of mystery, I suppose, but I thought Tom Hanks was superb. I enjoyed it. It didn't drag for me. It's a long film but I didn't feel bored, which was remarkable. I think it's one of those classic films where the marketing campaign - which was to clearly hold it back and create this huge reservoir of interest, which they were very successful in doing - alienated critics. I think they went in with their knives and forks prepared to tear it to pieces. But good for Ron Howard, he's had the last laugh.

What was the last movie you walked out of?

The Passion Of The Christ It was too violent for me.

Do you believe in God?

[Long pause] No. But I have a great respect for the spiritual way.

Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?

[Laughs] I don't know. I don't really understand the question because they're only people.

What's your favourite movie quote?

I guess the Orson Welles one - "This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!" [in RKO Studios working on Heart Of Darkness]

Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?

Alan Clarke.

And which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?

Do you know what? I don't believe directors are overrated because they get a hard enough time without having other directors pick on them. That's what I feel.

Who's the biggest pain in the arse you've ever worked with?

[Laughs] Me, definitely! Whenever I'm making a film I get very annoyed with the writer, which is generally me. Then when I'm writing a film, I get very annoyed with the director - and that's generally me too!

What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?

Blimey that's tricky. I don't know, sorry.

How seriously do you take reviews?

Well I don't read them assiduously, to be honest. I like to know whether they're broadly favourable or broadly unfavourable. Some critics I take seriously; a thoughtful review can be very good. Derek Malcolm I take very, very seriously. I welcome what they do and think it's important what they do. It would be wrong if cinema was driven entirely by marketing departments. Movies are a powerful cultural force, they can project things far and wide, especially the commercial movies. So I think it's important that there are counter-weighting opinions prepared to criticise them. I suspect there's not enough of it. Also, they're pretty wise people, critics. They see a lot of films and they do it from a neutral standpoint. There are some wonderful critics in America, such as Roger Ebert. I'm all for them..

What are the things that you wish you'd done differently?

Oh God, every film. Whenever you make a film you always get to the end of it and go: "Now I know what it is I was trying to make!" And you want to do it over again. Always. The early films, particularly, when you're younger and you're sort of learning. You look back at your early films and say: "If I knew then what I know now I'd be able to make that film."

What are your three favourite films and why?

Well, I would say Kes. You could pick many Ken Loach films and they would stand for me because of that mixture of dispassion and compassion. I hope I try to emulate that in my small way. In Kes, he does that brilliantly because of its powerful sense of conscience, because of its belief that the truth lies in small and unexpected places. It's a masterful film.

Any film by Alan Clarke because his films are oddly more combative. They're slightly more street fighting in a way and I like that and can feel that in my self too. When Stephen Frears said "he became the best of all of us", he was speaking the truth. I think he was an outstanding voice.

I could pick a dozen films, like Citizen Kane, Night & Fog, Jules et Jim, you know what I mean? But The Battle Of Algiers had a profound effect on me personally. I remember seeing that when I was 17 years old and it stayed with me forever.

I'm reeling them off now. But Quadrophenia was also a very important film for me because it had a joie de vivre. It was a very important British film because it sort of revived a sense that you could make a film about Britain. It was a towering achievement. In terms of today, I think Stephen Frears is a director's director because of his craftsmanship and his generosity and his quiet iconic status amongst British directors. I don't know that Stephen quite yet understands the extent of the affection that filmmakers have for him personally. He's a very different director to Ken Loach but just the depth and breadth of his work over 30 to 35 years - his sense of fun is infectious even today. His willingness to say: "Well that's it, it's that. I thought I'd make it like that." He's just got quiet, eccentric and beautiful English panache, I think.

United 93 is released in UK cinemas on Friday 2nd June 2006.

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