British director Paul Greengrass can effortlessly go from political dramas such as Bloody Sunday to commercial thrillers such as the last two Bourne films, and in between with United 93. His latest film, The Bourne Ultimatum, seems the perfect post-9/11 film, given what is happening in contemporary America, but ask the director about the film’s politics and he won’t have a bar of it, as Paul Fischer discovered.
Question: How important was it for you stepping into Ultimatum to ensure that this was as politically relevant as you could make it given the fact you’d done United 93 and we are living in this post 9-11 world, eavesdropping and lack of privacy, etc. Was it important for you to ensure collected all those concerns I’m sure you must have had?
Greengrass: You know the thing is when you come to a Bourne movie you come to have some fun. That’s honestly the truth of it, I mean me personally. It’s a Saturday night movie. It’s the movie I’d go to if I were going out for a Saturday night and I’d want to have a great time and have the best ride of the summer. I’m answering your question. I’m not being facetious, I’m being honest here. That, front and center, is what a Bourne movie is going to be. It’s gotta be true to the character and true to the world the character lives in. Now, the Bourne world is the world that’s outside our door. If you opened your door in New York or Paris or London or whatever you got to believe that whatever story it is that Bourne’s engaged in could be happening there. But I don’t come to a Bourne movie to make any kind of statement. What attracts me to Bourne’s world is that is a real world and I think I’m most comfortable there. But I come to a Bourne movie to have fun as a filmmaker, to strut my stuff and that’s part of the fun of franchise filmmaking. You get to build a ride and bring it out in the summer and compete with all the other great movies out in the marketplace. So yeah, there is an awful lot ‘cos we’ve all made…a lot of people come back… they were there for Supremacy and you’re kind of feeling around the set is that we’re going to be the best. You’ve got to believe that. It’s quite sporting in a way. for me it kind of feels like we’re going to win. When you’re directing a franchise movie you want to foster that because you know they’re very, very arduous long tiring complex frustrating sometimes activities. But you must never lose the sense of adventure. You know, the sense of excitement. Now what makes Bourne special I think is that it marries that with intelligence, with cool story telling, doesn’t underestimate its audience and it’s got this kind of gritty real contemporary landscape. That to me to answer your question is that’s the dash of Worcester sauce. That’s the little bit of chili but it’s not the meal. That’s what I think about it. When I go off and do my movies, I’ll make the chili the whole meal.
Question: Paul, you take the viewer that’s watching this movie on a very exciting and visual journey and I’m just curious because of the various locations you went in, what were some of the challenges in many of the cities that you happened to run up against if any?
Greengrass: Every one of them was a hideous nightmare. That’s the truth of it. But one of the things that I like to say when I’m making a film–it’s a bit of a mantra for me is whatever our problem is is our opportunity. It’s certainly true in a Bourne movie. One of the things that makes the Bourne movies so exciting I think is you do get to go on a journey. Generally through the franchise that journey is in Europe. This time obviously towards the end it comes back to New York. Unlike a lot of films if we’re in Tangier, we’re in Tangier. We’re not on the backlot somewhere. That makes for tremendous logistical difficulties and tremendous difficulties in shooting. If you’re going to say let’s mount really a very large sequence on Waterloo Station. That’s the busiest terminal in London, you know. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people are going through that place every hour. You can’t lock it down. They wouldn’t let you and you can’t do it, so what you have to do is see that as an opportunity not a problem. What you get is the texture of life within it and all the things I believe very, very much as a filmmaker is that if you create a film set which is the classic way it’s done which is highly sanitized, you know. There’s a perimeter around it and you know, you effectively erect a wall around yourself and then you’ve got a sanitized space where you can make your movie inside that. That’s fine but I think the problem is you become cut off from the real world, so I like to have a set that has what’s going on, you know. It makes for problems, but what you get in return for that is the vibrancy, the energy of a huge mainline station or Tangier or New York and it shows. Its part of what makes the Bourne films special, I think.
Question: How did you shoot that in Waterloo?
Greengrass: With enormous difficulty! You have to think carefully about how you’re going to do it. What you do is you design the sequence that is in many, many pieces so in fact you’re planning to shoot in many different parts of the station. What you have to do is never be in the same place twice because what happens is that people get to know you’re there and a crowd starts to build up. What you have to do be like a…it’s impossible to be like a true guerilla unit because it’s a huge…it’s a Bourne movie…it’s a huge movie, but you’ve got to move from place to place and be unpredictable so people don’t know where you are and then move on fast. You’ve got to schedule it so you’re not there for too long a period of time in any one time. So you might go for 2-3 days and then disappear and go off and do something else and then come back for 2-3 days a week or two later. If people get to know you’re going to be there, then the crowds are going to build up and what it means, of course, it puts prodigious demands on the actors because they never know from one hour to the next which bit of the sequence… well even I didn’t know… you’ve just got to seize your moment. It makes for opportunity. I think that my films–I’m not doing across the board here– but it’s certainly true of Bourne Ultimatum–you’re trying to bring together two forces that essentially are going in opposite directions. And those 2 forces are structure, order, planning, story, all the things you can lay down in advance logistically, narratively whatever it is. Then you’ve got the force of freedom, improvisation, the moment, the happy accident, the unstructured bit of filmmaking. I think what I try to do all the time is bring those two into the closed possible proximity and where the two meet that’s where a Bourne movie should be. It means that they’re fresh, you know. A Bourne movie is not an airline meal. It’s made on the run, you know. It doesn’t always work believe me but you know. With this tremendous self belief in the team, we’ve got in my view the greatest movie star in the world. He’s perfect for the part. Fantastic producers in the studio who allow us to make this huge franchise movie in this incredibly edgy, bold way actually, and together as a team we get there, I hope.
Question: Looking at the production notes before you started, I was glancing through them and I noticed there was a page of stunt performers. Now when you craft your scene do you do the stunt aspect first or do you do the script and then kind of work the stunt in and a comment to add to that the fight scene in Tangiers was the most exhausting, exhilarating scene I’ve ever seen. I thought will someone just die. It was just on the edge of everything so I just had to tell you that.
Greengrass: Well, the answer is that you…how do you design a big action sequence? First of all you have to attach it initially in its broadest sense. It’s just my view. I think it’s tremendously important when you’re looking at action in a movie and I think it’s one of the reasons why Bourne films people love them, you’ve got to pay very close attention to how it’s set up. You’ve got to have a real reason for your character to move into action as opposed to oh, let’s just have an action sequence. So how you set up the narrative and the issues that are in play that demand the central character to go into action are very, very important and you have to choreograph that carefully and if you do it carefully and satisfactorily by the time you hit the action your audience is loving it because they’ve been primed to go. Then you’ve got to conceive of action in an original way that is consistent with Bourne and his world. That means that when Bourne is in a corner you can’t just have him, you know, pull out some kind of technology and get himself out of trouble or suddenly have some kind of magic powers that get him out of hole or he’s a superhero so he can just swat them aside. You’ve got to think through the thought process of a real man absorbing information at high speed, making a choice and then executing it with pace and precision. When you’re making the film, that’s what you’ve got to show all the time every time. You see that throughout all those action sequences and then the last fact you’ve got to pay very close attention to I think and I’ve tried to do it in the two I’ve done is that whenever you go into action, the action has got to lead to character development. The character has got to be changed during the course of the action. It’s got to be selling your something profound about the character as opposed to it just happening. So if you think of that whole Tangiers sequence that’s you know, it resolves itself with a core character moment of shame about Bourne, he’s right there and he’s had to kill again and all of that. So when you marry those three things together then I think you get satisfying action. To answer the question about what was the question–about the fight? The fight is essentially a violent ballet. That’s what it is in reality. What you’re looking to do is… first you have to commit to the actors doing it, not the stunt men. That’s number 1. Stunt men may help enormously and always do in preparation of the fight. When you prepare a fight you go into a rehearsal room and they’ll be stunt performers and you start to work out with stunt performers to begin with how and the actors how the fight might unfold. You can’t be exploring dangerous elements with your leader. Then as you get the shape the actors will come in and we’ll start to build it up and change it and evolve it and they let their own ideas in. Then you start to work on the precision and the pace of it. It’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into these things before they ever hit the floor. Then once you’re on the floor, the moves, the dance is set. It’s a dance, that’s what it is. Then what you’re working on is if the tolerance is that between safe and somebody getting knocked out for 6 years then you’re looking to get that tolerance to there.
Question: And you nailed it.
Greengrass: I didn’t, they did. And that takes, believe me, unbelievable stamina for those two actors, day after day after day. Incredible exertions of power, courage–because you’re getting hurt in those things. You can’t smash around like that for a week or whatever it is in confined spaces really…when you’re in front of it it’s absolutely ferocious. It’s like they’re fighting. They are fighting. And then the last thing you need is an incredible trust that’s earned from rehearsals. Trust that when that guy throws that punch it’s going to be real and he’s got to trust that the other guy is just going to be that far away and you’ve got to decide who’s in charge of the moves because you both can’t be in charge. It’s like …incredible. Very exciting to watch if you’re a director.
Question: Was there any debate whether or not to keep the ending a bit more ambiguous rather than to show Bourne swimming away? Was there ever a moment where you felt you should leave it hanging just a little bit?
Greengrass: Not really to be honest. Not at all in fact to be absolutely honest. I’m always a very, very strong proponent myself of Bourne standing clear and unbroken at the end. I think it’s …but that’s because Bourne is a very moral character at heart. He never expresses any moralizing but he’s essentially a character–that’s why we love him because he’s got a dark past and he’s renounced it and he’s trying to make like a new chapter for himself. He’s seeking the light, always. Also he’s an outlaw. He’s us against them and they’re never going to catch him, so I never want Bourne to be caught. That’s something I always want to believe that he’s out there, because he’s the person who says I won’t get fooled again. Where’s the answers? You’re lying to me. I just love that about the character.
Question: Paul, how has Matt Damon changed working with him over the course, he’s said it’s been 7 years. 5 years worth of movies doing this kind of incredible adventure–this trilogy and secondly I couldn’t help but think as I watched David Strathairn through the movie I kept chanting Cheney, Cheney, Cheney. He seems to epitomize the government guy who is convinced that he’s right and does everything wrong and only has a belief in himself. How conscious were you of making that kind of political statement in this movie?
Greengrass: Honestly and truly I’m not ducking it not at all. I mean it’s like…I don’t think he actually looks like Dick Cheney does he? No, it never occurred…better hair right. No, I mean it’s a Bourne movie it’s not a private political soap box for me or anybody else. I’m not ducking it; it’s honestly how I feel. But as a franchise it’s aggressively contemporary and that’s part of its appeal. It’s not topical though, and there is a difference between contemporary which is good in a Bourne movie and topical which would be Dick Cheney which would not be good because I wouldn’t want to go out on a Saturday night and see Dick Cheney in a movie. That’s the truth of it you know.
Question: Audiences at screenings cheer when the CIA gets its ass kicked repeatedly. Were they cheering because they knew they were the bad guys or because it was the CIA?
Greengrass: We’re all engaged in the world. That’s why the Bourne franchise works because you go on a Saturday night or whenever you go but it’s an action adventure but the character has real heart and soul and a real moral component existing in the real world. He makes choices about the world. When he says I’m no longer Jason Bourne and renounces all the black ops that have scarred his life effectively for 7 years of course that has power, but I think it feels earned by the film. I think it feels earned in particular by the franchise, by the 3 films which goes to your 1st question which is how Matt’s changed. I think one of the things that’s most interesting to me and I really look forward and this is a funny thing to say but the last time I watched this film is when it comes out on DVD I’m going to sit and watch Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum back to back and that will be it–done for it. I know what I’ll see. I’ll see he’s my friend, Matt, and I love him but I’ll see a wonderful, wonderful actor going through 7 years of his life. Bourne aging and being tempered by his journey through the dark paranoid conspiratorial Bourne world and that I think is part of what I think why Ultimatum seems to work. It’s very hard when you make a film and you hope it works and you dream it works and you work your butt off to try to make it work but you never know. You’d have a much better sense of the film than I would at this point but I think one of the things that always did feel very powerful to me making it was this sense of Matt tempered. He’s 7 years older than he was when he was in Bourne and the character of Bourne knows so much more now than Jason Bourne did when he was fished out of the water at the start of Identity who knew nothing. He didn’t even know what his name was. He didn’t even know he’d been in the CIA, now he’s gone through 2 movies and the character you find in Ultimatum is still in the …he still has the full range of his skills. He’s down the road towards finding the answers to his quest but he knows he faces formidable adversaries who will probably never be beaten. Somewhere Matt manages to convey that and it crackles with contemporariness there. I think we all…and that goes to the Cheney thing, I don’t think it’s about Cheney or any one government or anything like that. I think there’s something about a character facing the huge problems and challenges of the contemporary world and meeting them with head on with courage, allowing for darkness and mistake, but ultimately always moral. That’s incredibly, incredibly inspiring and that’s honestly what I think. That to me is what it’s about and I think that’s why you enjoy the ride and that’s why I think people love the character because it speaks to them but not in a partisan way. It just speaks to the way the world is. It’s full of difficulty and challenge and violence and ultimately if you can keep struggling toward the light you find the road.
Question: How much authorship do you feel for these films? You didn’t do the 1st one but your style is so identified with the whole series just from the last one.
Greengrass: How much sense of authorship? Well, I’m not ducking it but the truth is I’ll duck it. No, franchise filmmaking is a group activity. It really is. The scale of the activity is huge; both logistical, financial, budgetary, resource wise it’s just you operate 360 degrees in a cruel time frame to make these things happen. No one person is the author of a Bourne film. The truth is it’s a coalition of people who share the same vision for Bourne and his world and we…its remarkably collaborative and collective. Oh listen we disagree and we have tremendous old cat fights about can’t go this way, we should go this way and from time to time and somebody will have to judicate, whether it’s me or whatever. But that’s why they’re so great because I’ve never had an argument in a Bourne film–ever. Like an argument, a bad…we’ve had you know, but never once. It’s a fantastic…that’s one of the reasons they work–a brilliant team effort.
Question: Paul, what did your Oscar nomination mean to you?
Greengrass: It was very nice. I was actually on the set of Bourne Ultimatum at that time and everybody was very nice. It meant a lot to me most of all because of the journey we took with all those families. They were so incredibly supportive of us and it meant the world to them and of course on a personal level it was a great honor, but it meant most because they felt acknowledged in this city, by Hollywood. And I think that was fantastic.