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Paul Greengrass On Green Zone
The director on his Iraq-set thriller

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Paul Greengrass has directed two wildly succesful Bourne films and a couple of more realistic, political works in Bloody Sunday and United 93. Now he's merging the two sides of his career in Green Zone, set against the (very political) backdrop of the US invasion of Iraq, but concerning the (very thrilling) hunt by Matt Damon's Chief Warrant Officer Miller for WMDs or, failing that, a way to stop the insurrgency. Here's what Greengrass had to say about the film...
Paul Greengrass | Green Zone

Were you concerned about the reception given to Iraq movies at the box office thus far? Are you worried that Green Zone might suffer the same fate?
No, not at all. But do I think it’s going to happen? No. I think at the end of the day, you earn a certain amount of credibility with your audience based on the films that you make. When you make a film, and I think it’s particularly so when you make a film in the commercial arena, in a broad arena, you’re offering a promise to the audience and the audience redeems that promise and either feels that you delivered what you promised, or you did not. I really do believe, with a great, great passion, in the possibility of really good films being made at scale and in the mainstream. I believe it’s possible and that’s what both Bournes were about for me. I don’t think they were just popcorn movies. I think they were hugely entertaining to a big, huge audience. I think they articulated something going on out there to do with paranoia and a collapse of trust in the way that we were governed. I think it articulated the kind of anti-establishment feeling of particularly young people and gave them a focus, a character that spoke to them. And he was real, and kind of cool.

So I suppose what I’m saying to our audience and what Matt’s saying to our audience is, we’re not the sort of people who have not delivered on our promise to give you an evening in the movie theatre. And I don’t believe that we would disappoint you in this. To us, this is new territory because we don’t want to just keep on making the same movie again, with the same character, much though we love that character. But the kinds of filmmaking and storytelling, we understand what people to go to the movies for, what are the things that they want to see and the experiences they want to have. They want to be rewarded for their choice in trusting you. That’s something that every single person on that film, but especially me and Matt, takes incredibly seriously. How do you make a film that delivers on our promise and yet takes our audience to some new territory? I think when audiences make their mind up about this film, they’ll have in mind both films and how they made them feel and they’ll make a judgement. That’s honestly what I feel.

How did this come about for you?
When we sat down and went, “Let’s do another movie, let’s have another exciting movie”. What do we want to make? You go, what’s the most dangerous, extreme place in the world today? Then it was Iraq, where the stakes are huge and you kinda go, “We have to be able to turn that landscape into a gripping story and a compelling theatrical experience.” That’s what you set out to do. Imperial Life In The Emerald City Book Cover

Is it important for you that this isn’t seen, necessarily, as an anti-war film?
Listen, the issue here is not what people think about the war. Honourable people can have lots of different opinions about that. The film is about coming in and experiencing an exciting story. But, undoubtedly, when you sit down and watch a film, you want to feel a personal connection with the character and the world, and this film sits everybody down at the place we all were. I think all of us felt that, within a few days they were going to find weapons and then they didn’t. I remember being absolutely amazed. “What? You mean there aren’t any there?”

It’s not that I felt personally betrayed. I think everyone, from whatever perspective they viewed these hugely important, epoch-making events, was absolutely slack-jawed when slowly but surely it became clear that they weren’t going to find anything and we’d gone to war for the wrong reasons. That’s the point. I think that’s why that first scene [in the film] is so important because it takes us there. We’re with Matt Damon when he goes, "You mean there’s nothing here?" It’s such a fundamental starting point, it’s a springboard because all of us were at that place, I think, whether you live in America or Britain or France. And that’s where our story starts and that gives us a hero who takes the honourable journey, which is always the great journey in a conspiracy thriller, which is, "I’m going to find out and I’m not going to rest until I get an answer".

Was the shoot tougher than expected?
Well, it was a difficult time to make a movie. We had to bring it forward because there was a threatened actors’ strike and we walked straight into a writers’ strike. Then there was financial meltdown in the world. So it was a difficult time to make movies, but that was true of a lot of movies that were made last year. It was a challenging environment.

It’s inspired by Imperial Life In The Emerald City, but is very far removed from the book. Can you explain how that inspired you?
When I read Imperial Life, that turned a light bulb on because it gave me a world to aim at. Although the book has no story – it’s a series of anecdotes really – it’s a magnificent piece of reporting, but it gave me the world of the Green Zone, the walled city behind which all the movers and shakers were huddled in the centre of Baghdad, cut off from real Iraq, in a place of intrigue and decision. Once I had that in my head, I had a movie, because I could see that you could have a hero who had come out of the badlands, where he failed to find WMD, and he comes to the Green Zone in search of answers. At that moment was when it all came together, really.

There’s an incredible amount of incidental detail in the film, which contributes to the feeling of verisimilitude…
I hope so. I definitely thought and felt that if you were going to make a film in Iraq and it was going to be a thriller, you had to take people to the world. The world is absolutely fascinating, but you can’t really depict it on a small budget. You’ve got to be there, you’ve got to feel like you’re inside the Green Zone. You’ve got to understand the scale of what occurred there, I think, to really get the charge of the environment. Thrillers are all about environment as well as character.

It’s interesting that you don’t really go into Miller’s backstory…
We talked a lot about that. I’m always suspicious of the manufactured back story. In other words, “I’m only doing this because my mother did such-and-such when I was a child.” It always strikes me as a contrivance. In the end, you want characters being compelled and impelled to act almost despite themselves, on an elemental canvas. That’s my desire. If you look through the films I’ve made, that tends to be quite common. There’s no back story in Bloody Sunday. The event is filled with back story and you’re just pitched into it in the tightest of timeframes and the ride of the film gives you context and meaning. It’s counter-intuitive. [United] 93, there’s no back story, you just experience it and experiencing it gives you its meaning. In a way, that’s what I did with the Bourne movies. I stripped them back and compressed them into the tightest of timeframes. And somewhere the essence of the character speaks to you. It’s the same with Green Zone. This character is us.
Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon | Green Zone

Can you talk about the decision to make Miller a MET Delta guy, a WMD hunter?
That was really when the piece started to unfold clearly in my mind, when I started to learn about these small teams of guys – the Mobile Exploitation Teams, the MET teams – who are very small teams, about 18-20 guys, whose job it was to come flying across the border on the first night of the war. They’d be given a grid reference and they’d go there with the expectation, based on the intelligence that they’d been given, that they’d be picking up the weapons of mass destruction. Those guys would go through a lot of very difficult and dangerous manoeuvres to end up in places which were empty and very quickly they asked that question which Miller asks. There were only three teams and once I’d met Monty [Gonzales, military adviser] and heard his story, I knew we had a thriller. It’s such a great set-up. I remember him saying that it felt like you were in the middle of a Hollywood thriller.

Are you wary of avoiding Bourne comparisons with this?
I didn’t want to look at that issue. Otherwise you just get inhibited. Is this like a Bourne movie or is this not like a Bourne movie? That way madness lies. I think what you do is you make the film that’s in front of you with the character. What I was always clear about is this isn’t a fictional world; this is the real world that he’s in. But it’s me, it’s Matt, so there are going to be some overlaps, there are. The real question from my point of view is not so much are there overlaps, but is it the same film or is it different? I think it’s different. I think there are similarities: it’s Matt Damon, he’s in a very physical action part. It would be odd if my shooting style wasn’t similar, in a way. Is it like Bourne? Does it matter? What counts is, is it moving along? Does it feel authentically like my film? Does it feel authentically like the story?

You once told me that Matt was like Zinedine Zidane. Do you stand by that?
Did I, really? Fantastic! I now call him the Wayne Rooney. In Green Zone, he is the Wayne Rooney of cinema. He’s got the touch, the hunger and commitment. He’ll like that!

Speaking of Bourne, you’re officially done with the series?
Truly, it is what I said in my statement. I was very tempted, I thought long and hard about going back. Obviously there was a great lure because I love those movies and I love all the people who I made them with. But in the end I’d rather make other films. There are other films I want to make. I’ve left Jason Bourne where I could see him being left, and it needs somebody else now to consider how best to take him on.

Interview by Chris Hewitt

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