Paul Greengrass: ‘What are we gonna do in our country? It’s split down the middle’

James Mottram
·8-min read
<p>Filmmaker Paul Greengrass with Tom Hanks on the set of ‘News of the World’</p> (Bruce W Talamon/Universal Pictures/Netflix)

Filmmaker Paul Greengrass with Tom Hanks on the set of ‘News of the World’

(Bruce W Talamon/Universal Pictures/Netflix)

I think I was in a period of change,” says Paul Greengrass, reflecting on what led to his new post-civil war western News of the World. Between 2004 and 2017, the British-born director made three hugely successful Jason Bourne films, based on the Robert Ludlum espionage novels, with Matt Damon. There were other big-scale dramas too: Somali pirates tale Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks, and Green Zone, again with Damon, about the search for WMDs. But, in 2018, he directed 22 July, an uncompromising account of Norway’s worst ever terrorist attack, when far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred over 70 people, many of them children. He scaled back and shot in Norwegian. It was his most intense film in years.

“That was really about Norway as a kind of case study, in how to deal with the rise of violent right-wing extremism, because it seemed to me that was a rising threat, whether it was in Britain or Europe or in America.” The experience was an unsettling one for him. “You’re left thinking: how dark the world is and how frighteningly divided it is.” Right-wing extremism is now “a profound part of our world, as we saw just a couple of weeks ago in America”, he adds, referring to the storming of the Capitol in Washington DC by Trump supporters. “It’s not going away here or there [America] or around Europe.”

The 65-year-old says that being a father – he has three children with his wife, the talent agent Joanna Kaye, and two more from an earlier marriage – has left him particularly worried by the current political climate and the ever-widening divisions in society. “My kids are growing up fast and entering adulthood,” he says, speaking from his farmhouse in Oxfordshire. “It’s a poignant time as a parent. You do sit down and think: ‘What kind of a world have we given them?’ It seems more pressing than when they’re small, when they’re with you, and you can look after them.”

With these concerns lingering, he received Paulette Jiles’s 2016 novel, News of the World, a story set in 1870 in Texas in the aftermath of the civil war, with a nation divided. Deciding to bring it to the screen, Greengrass reunited with Tom Hanks, who plays Captain Jefferson Kidd, a former Confederate soldier who travels to towns reading the news out loud to those who’ll pay to listen. When he encounters a young German girl, Johanna (Golden Globe nominee Helena Zengel, aged 12, now up for Best Supporting Actress for the film – the youngest ever person to be nominated), who was kidnapped by Kiowa raiders and raised as their own, he grudgingly agrees to escort her back to her aunt and uncle.

“It’s a story of reconstruction and how, at the time of division, these two characters go on a journey. And their journey is towards a place where they can feel they belong,” says Greengrass. “I think it’s a journey we’re all on,” he adds. “I think that’s true of all of us in a way. What are we gonna do in our country? It’s split down the middle, isn’t it? I think that [Brexit] division is somewhat obscured now, by the Covid crisis. But it’s going to emerge as soon as the immediate Covid crisis is over. And we will be in the shadow of tremendous loss and grief, bitterly divided.”

Greengrass is unflinching with his words, stopping only briefly to yell at his dog when a delivery man turns up with a package. He started his career in journalism, working as a researcher for ITV’s current affairs show World in Action in the late 1970s, including documenting the IRA hunger strike at the Maze prison. Later, he co-authored the former intelligence officer Peter Wright’s memoir Spycatcher, a book banned by the Thatcher government for its revelations of a high-ranking Soviet mole in MI5.

That youthful anger hasn’t dissipated over the years. Greengrass’s best films have always been politically engaged, boasting an urgent, journalistic quality, like 2002’s Bloody Sunday, about the infamous 1972 shootings in Northern Ireland, which won him the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear. Later, he made United 93, set around the 9/11 hijacking of the United Airlines plane – gaining him a Bafta for Best Director and an Oscar nomination. He still believes in the importance of reporting. “I think journalism is on the front line because its business is truth,” he says. “And, of course, powerful forces want to undermine truth or the facts. They want facts to be what powerful people tell you are facts, which is not facts at all. Very often it’s lies.”

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in ‘News of the World’Bruce W Talamon/Universal Pictures/Netflix
Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in ‘News of the World’Bruce W Talamon/Universal Pictures/Netflix

Still, Greengrass’s firebrand passion seems at odds with News of the World, a languid and beautifully made western (and nothing to do with the tabloid paper). “I like the fact that it was a more classically wrought movie, with a different pace,” he says. He was partly inspired after contributing to Netflix series Five Came Back, in which contemporary directors reflect on filmmakers who served in the Second World War. He chose John Ford, a director he reveres. When he read Jiles’s novel, he immediately thought of Ford’s 1956 classic The Searchers, in which John Wayne goes in search of his niece, kidnapped by the Comanches.

In essence, News of the World is “The Searchers in reverse”, he says. Despite reassessments of Wayne’s legacy, due to his own extreme beliefs in white supremacy, Greengrass has little problem in separating the art from the artist. “I think John Wayne was a very fine actor. And obviously a great movie star of a certain kind. Never better than in the Ford films,” he says. “I don’t think you can put Wayne or Ford into the camp of modern right-wing populism. They’re different kinds of people, weren’t they? Ford was socially conservative and marked entirely by his service in World War II.”

Greengrass’s film differs from the westerns of old; the Native American characters are barely glimpsed and don’t conform to Hollywood’s old racist stereotypes. Was he under instruction to make a politically correct western? “No. None of that. Nothing like that,” he says. “I’m very lucky in that I have complete freedom within the films that I make.” Greengrass didn’t need to be told to deliver a sensitive, sanitised version of the west; the first thing he did was reach out to the Kiowa tribe. “We discussed it with them and they were fully supportive and they liked it. They liked the novel actually and were delighted to come and play in the film.”

When I ask Greengrass if it’s now almost impossible to make authentic westerns due to the offence they may cause, he demurs. “They don’t make many westerns now,” he says, simply. “I’m not sure that’s to do with political correctness. Probably more, I would say, a fashion, and also because it’s a quintessentially American cinematic genre. And so in an era of increasingly global cinema, there’s probably a view that it doesn’t travel or translate as readily overseas.”

Tom Hanks in ‘Captain Phillips’Sony
Tom Hanks in ‘Captain Phillips’Sony

Ironically, that’s exactly what News of the World will do. It’s being released globally by Netflix on its platform after a deal was struck between Universal Studios and the streamer in the midst of the pandemic. “Would I have loved this film to be seen on the big screen? Of course. It was made for the big screen.” Nevertheless, Greengrass believes it important to release it now, even with cinemas shut. “If we believe in our industry, we have to get films out there. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, well, we’ll stop making and releasing films for two years.’ You’ve got to believe. It’s an expression of faith in the future of our business.”

It’s his second film in a row released by Netflix after 22 July, which he says they told him ended up with “something like 40 million” views, he explains, far more than would ever have been achieved on the arthouse circuit. “That’s unbelievable, for a movie like that,” he says. As demonstrated by the Academy’s willingness to include titles that aren’t theatrically released in this year’s Oscars, Netflix is no longer deemed an outsider, he says. “I think that’s all gone. It’s one industry now. Increasingly. I don’t think it’s ‘us and them’ so much now.”

Where Greengrass will go next remains to be seen. His long-held desire to adapt George Orwell’s political masterpiece 1984 may have to wait, with the book tied up in complicated rights issues. What about another Bourne movie? Last year, there was a spin-off TV series, Treadstone. “Look,” he replies. “I’m a Bourne guy. I love the franchise. I wish it well. I hope it continues. I’m not sure. I think I’ve done my stint on Bourne. But I hope it carries on. I really hope it carries on.”

He is sanguine about the beleaguered state of cinemas right now. “I’m actually pretty optimistic. I must be honest. I am. I think that the Covid crisis has been existential. Obviously, production has been tremendously interrupted and exhibition has been almost decimated. But I do think within six or nine months, we’ll be back in cinemas in large numbers.” He refers back to Captain Kidd in his film, regaling townsfolk with current affairs. “We’re a storytelling animal, aren’t we? We tell stories around the kitchen table or in pubs or cafes. Or in movies – when we can gather in cinemas. And I think we all miss that. Terribly. I do.”

News of the World is available on Netflix from 10 February

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