“I wanted to do something different, I wanted to slow down,” says Paul Greengrass, the filmmaker who reinvented the action genre, as we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast and discuss his latest project, News of the World, a deliberately-paced Western starring Tom Hanks as a 19th century Civil War veteran turned traveling news-reader who winds up as the surrogate father of a lost young girl.
The 65-year-old, who is best known for his hyperkinetic Bourne films with Matt Damon (2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum and 2016’s Jason Bourne) and his ripped-from-the-headlines films about terrorism (2002’s Bloody Sunday, 2006’s United 93, 2010’s Green Zone, also with Damon, 2013’s Captain Phillips, with Hanks, and 2018’s 22 July), says he decided this time to go “down the healing road” and make a “family film” with “hope and heart.”
* * * You can listen to the episode here. The article continues below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Kevin Hart, Carey Mulligan, Seth MacFarlane, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Jake Gyllenhaal, Glenn Close, Will Ferrell, Cate Blanchett, Sacha Baron Cohen, Greta Gerwig, Conan O’Brien and Kerry Washington.
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Born in a suburb of London and raised mostly by his mother while his father was away as a Merchant Marine, Greengrass was “a kid who found it difficult to fit in, who was a bit averse to institutions and a bit averse to polite society” — until, that is, he “lost myself” in the arts. He got his act together enough to attend and graduate from Cambridge, after which he landed a job working at Granada Television’s World in Action, an investigative news show “deeply rooted in the British documentary movement” for which he spent nine years — 1978 through 1987 — traveling the world writing, shooting and editing segments. “That was really my education,” he says.
“I had always had a secret dream to make movies,” he says, but it seemed an impossible aspiration until Channel Four started Film Four and financing became available. Greengrass left World in Action and, beginning in 1989, spent a decade making films for television. “I would write these films, but they would never quite turn out as I saw them in my mind’s eye,” he says — until, that is, he reached the conclusion that he should shoot his narrative projects the way he had shot his documentary projects, with an “unknowing camera.” Thus, with 1999’s The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, he arrived at his trademark visual style of shaky handheld cameras and super-fast editing.
2002’s Bloody Sunday, his second “docudrama” (the label used by many to describe his films of that era), was even more fully-realized, won prizes at the Sundance and Berlin film fests and got noticed internationally. “After Bloody Sunday,” Greengrass says, “I felt that I had got to the end of a sort of ‘chapter’ of work, and I needed to do something different, but I didn’t know what.” It just so happened that, that same year, Universal had released Doug Liman The Bourne Identity, which proved an unexpected blockbuster, and the studio wanted a sequel, albeit with a different filmmaker.
Greengrass remembers thinking around that time, “I want to do a proper, big-ass Hollywood movie and see if I can.” Then, he continues, “A few months later, I get a call saying, ‘Would you be interested in doing the follow-up to The Bourne Identity?’” He flew to LA to meet with producer Frank Marshall, and came away with the job of making The Bourne Supremacy, a $75 million project starring an A-lister and featuring massive stunts and explosions. While it was a considerably bigger budget than he had ever worked with before — Bloody Sunday cost just $4.5 million — he and Marshall decided to shoot every scene twice: once the conventional Hollywood way, and once the Greengrass way. The Greengrass way ended up being used, and The Bourne Supremacy was a critically-acclaimed hit. So, too, was the sequel for which Greengrass was brought back three years later, The Bourne Ultimatum.
Coming off of The Bourne Supremacy, when he could have done anything, and for years thereafter since he wasn’t making a Bourne film (he returned for a third in 2016), Greengrass opted to make films about relatively recent terror-related events: United 93 less than five years after 9/11 (for which Greengrass received a best director Oscar nom); Green Zone while the war in Iraq was still raging; Captain Phillips four years after Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk; and 22 July seven years after the worst mass-casualty attack in Norway’s history.
“The roots of them go back, I suppose, to my twenties, when I was in the real world and your job was to find a story and to watch the world in action and find a piece of it that you could tell a story out of,” Greengrass says. He emphasizes that 22 July was intended as a warning, of sorts, about the sorts of events that would soon spread far beyond the Norwegian borders. “Our societies are facing a profound challenge from right-wing extremism. You can see it in your country right now, and certainly in my country and all across Europe and elsewhere.”
To that end, I mentioned that on Jan. 6, 2021, as the U.S. Capitol came under attack, it occurred to me that the person most likely to one day make a film about those events was Greengrass. “It crossed my mind, too,” he acknowledges, “and it crossed quite a few other people’s minds who have been in contact with me.” Has a Bond film ever crossed his mind? “Bourne was born in opposition to Bond,” he says, adding, “They would never ask me.” How about another Bourne film? “I think that’s unlikely, but I am Team Bourne to my dying day, and I love that he’s still out there,” Greengrass says. “There’ll be another Bourne movie, I’m sure. But I think it would be better that somebody else comes in, somebody young and hungry.”