All of Paul Greengrass’ films deal with two thematic elements: the state of the world today and what he likes to call asymmetrical warfare, whether it be the IRA versus the British in Bloody Sunday, the 9/11 hijackers in United 93 or Jason Bourne against the CIA in the Bourne films, but there’s been a subtle difference between his mainstream Bourne movies and his more personal, neo-factualist films. His next movie project, an adaptation of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s non-fiction Imperial Life in the Emerald City, is about the US occupation of Iraq, something that fits into the United 93/Bloody Sunday mold, but it’s a studio picture that may star Matt Damon. When I sat down with Paul on Saturday for a one on one (coming in full soon) I had to ask him which kind of a film Imperial Life would be. Here’s his answer:
We’ve optioned the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, but the screenplay that Brian Helgeland’s written is much broader than that. It’s basically a film about the Iraq conflict; it’s about what went wrong and why. The answer to your absolutely excellent question is that what I want to do is take the sort of impulses that led to United 93 and play them out on a much bigger scale. Why? Not because I have vanity of scale – I could go and make a big movie tomorrow. It’s because it’s the biggest issue in our world today. As much as I believe that the cinema that I watch and you watch needed to address 9/11, it needs to address Iraq. And that demands scale. I think if you’re going to address that subject credibly, you have to be there. We only go there in soundbites on TV, but we have to be there for two hours and live it and understand it. So it needs scale. And that’s my next challenge: can I, in this environment, make a film like that, and the answer is that so far I’ve only been encouraged down that road.
As Matt Damon told me, his involvement in Imperial Life is depending on scheduling. I’m hoping that he and Paul can make it work, because I think a melding of Greengrass’ documentary style with a big Hollywood film (the movie would be based on the reality of the US occupation, but be fictionalized, as the book doesn’t have a character who ties all the different aspects together. That amalgam character would be played by Damon) is an exciting next step for a man who I think is one of the best and most intellectually rigorous directors out there today.