There’s an art to interviewing Paul Greengrass. That art is essentially aiming him and then stepping out of the way. Greengrass is a brilliant, well-spoken guy who can hold forth at amazing length about any subject that interests him. He’s incapable of giving a simple or a quick or a smarmy answer. He won’t blow off even the stupidest question, and he’ll really go in depth and follow a thought all the way through to conclusion.
Which means that when you get Greengrass on the phone for 15 minutes you don’t have time for small talk. I’ve interviewed Paul on a number of occasions, including on the set of United 93, and while I’ve often had the luxury of long interviews (almost two hours talking about his vision for Watchmen, and I ended up being able to ask about six questions!), I’ve also done the quick junket interview with him. With that in mind I tried to craft a question that I thought would allow Paul the room to really get into some meaty issues in his new film, Green Zone.
While Green Zone is a non-stop action film in the Bourne tradition, Greengrass weds that with the other side of his filmography. He uses the action format to tell a story about the missing Iraq WMD, and to explore how the easy invasion turned into an endless mess. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is where Greengrass throws his criticism, and where he doesn’t. You may walk in thinking the CIA would be the baddies in a film about wrong intelligence, but they’re in fact the heroes. And while Amy Ryan plays a journalist who appears to be modeled on New York Times writer Judith Miller – who printed administration lies about WMD in Iraq, helping to get the US into the war – Greengrass comes at her with a redemptive eye.
What follows is a lot of Paul talking, and it’s pretty great. He gets into not just the real world implications of the bad intelligence but also the way that he tried to weld an action movie into real life events, and he mounts a pretty passionate defense of journalism. There’s very little of me here, and a whole lot of the mind of Paul Greengrass.
You’ve been a journalist yourself, and watching Green Zone it strikes me that you go very easy on the character who is obviously based on Judith Miller; she runs a false story about WMD in Iraq that helps get us into this mess, yet you’re very forgiving of her.
I’ve just been having this debate, and it’s a very interesting one. Everybody knows Judith Miller, that’s a very particular person. In the film I wanted it to deliberately be a piece of fiction, because it’s a thriller. When I was making The Bourne Ultimatum I knew it was for a big, broad audience – I’m starting with the basics so we can get to the specifics. They come to those Bourne movies, and they love those Bourne films, I think, because they’re seeing a very familiar genre – the conspiracy action thriller – but they’re seeing within it the new way that Matt [Damon] and I were putting those familiar elements together. One was the really, really high octane foot to the floor sustained action on a scale that hadn’t been done before. Second, it’s a ripped from the headlines contemporary story, and it’s got a strong moral hero. You serve those up and it feels fantastically contemporary, very of the moment. It serves up a perfectly distilled dose of high octane paranoia. Audiences love that.
That high octane does of paranoia doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from all the turbulence that’s going on in the outside world. Audiences come into the theater and see a Bourne movie and it feels like it perfectly reflects the world, that chaotic disorder outside, I’ve distilled it and given it to them with a fantastically moral character searching for an answer in an impure world. Audiences massively liked it.
So here’s me and Matt thinking let’s go one step further. If we have that audience – which, after all is made up of the people asked to fight this thing, and on the other end is made up of people who are vociferously opposed to this thing – both ends of that spectrum are coming to Bourne movies and feeling they’re really rewarding nights in the theater. Let’s see if we can’t construct a thriller one step more inside the real world and invite that same audience with the desire for high-intensity, high-adrenaline action with really clear and contemporary and dynamic story and a moral hero. He won’t be Bourne, since we’re in the real world now. We have to accept some rules, but in the end he can still be a character in search of purity. But instead of it being Jason Bourne searching for the truth in the Bourne world, he’s a real man searching for the truth right as soon as he arrives in Iraq, because he’s involved in the hunt for WMD and there are no weapons.
And that’s the journey all of us, in some way, took. Whether or not you were for the war is irrelevant – all of us thought that when they went in they were going to find something. And when they didn’t I certainly remember thinking, ‘Christ, that’s weird.’ Then you go, ‘Oh my God, there never was anything there.’ You read stuff in the papers and you see the hearings and you read books and you say ‘Jesus Christ, there was all of this going on, this massively complicated cocktail of paranoia and confusion.’ Well, that’s your story! That’s a great place to put a thriller. It’s a great place to put your noble hero who is just a soldier who is told to go to Grid Reference such and such and he fights his way in with his mates and when he gets there there are no weapons. And he goes, ‘Hang on a second, how come they’re not here?’ That’s a great premise for a thriller, because you’ve got your hero where you want him, asking a question and not getting an answer and becoming progressively determined to find the truth. And of course the further he goes in search of it the more he’s in danger. The classic hero in search of the truth is always at the heart of the conspiracy thriller.
That’s your mission. You’re going to deliver a high quality conspiracy action thriller set in that real world, and you’re going to abide by the rules of that real world. You’re going to distill that real world into its constituent parts so that you feel like the hero is moving through that real world. You don’t want those characters he meets to be real people, since you’re getting into the individualities of what those people did and it’s no longer a piece of fiction. You want the backdrop to be the real world, you want the debates that people have to be the real debates that took place. So for instance when [Greg Kinnear and Brendan Gleeson’s characters] have the set-to in the conference room about disbanding the army that is exactly the debates that went on between those guys, when the CIA did warn the Pentagon that if you disband the army you’ll have civil war in this country in six months. That was the fundamental key move, and that’s why the film builds to that first night of the insurgency, a real world breakdown ticking clock, like a thriller.
So you want to have that real world background while still being fictional. The characters in it need to be fictional but need to speak to the distilled broadness of the position. That brings me to [Amy Ryan’s character]. You’re saying I was too easy on her.
You were very forgiving of a journalist who accepted a story and ran it without checking it.
Here’s what I would say. With enormous respect I wouldn’t agree, and for this reason. I think the film shows exactly what did occur. I don’t think prior to the invasion anyone would dispute – and you and I definitely wouldn’t dispute – that journalism was gulled by the government in your country and in mine. They took at face value what they were told, and there was no doubt that too many journalistic outlets – and we’re not talking about individuals here, we’re talking about the Fourth Estate broadly here – were willing to accept what the administration and government people were saying about what the intelligence was saying. It felt sexy to report it, and we had no means to check it, and we took it at face value. The most egregious example of that was Judith Miller. But I can point you to any number of academic studies that show we was only one – it was a broad failing, not a particular failing of Judith Miller and the New York Times. There was culpability on a broad scale.
But let’s be fair about this! Yes, they were taking the information at face value. But ultimately the culpability lies with those who were trying to do the information management more than those who gullibley reported it. They may have been instrumental in their own downfall, but let’s put the blame where it needs to be. That’s why I wanted – and I’m going to come on to another aspect of this now. The story of this reporter, having been told that Source X says here’s the intelligence, who goes to Iraq to find the source when the weapons haven’t been found, is a very credible way of distilling it. She turns up at the airport and says, ‘Where is the guy, I need to talk to that source?’ Now that the weapons haven’t been found questions are being asked and she has to find the source.
That process was beginning to happen, without a doubt, from very early on. The press generally, after those first weeks, were on the case. They were asking where are the WMD? That pressure was building up from almost the moment they landed in Baghdad. Where are the weapons? And failing that, they began asking questions about the intelligence that said the weapons were there. And then of course our hero gets in the room and we get a thriller. But we get with her a fantastic scene where she tells him how she was conned. It comes to your view, essentially, of the press. I’m not talking about people in the press but the press. I have tremendous respect and admiration for a horribly difficult job – it’s much more sinned against than sinning – and when I think of the mistakes that were made, which of wouldn’t, if we were offered those classified documents, wouldn’t have taken the story?
But the point is that she, as a character, tells the truth about what happened. Then you get to the next bit, which is the satisfying movie bit, where the hero [does heroic but spoilery stuff]. When your question states I’m too kind to people like Judith Miller I say that question misses out on the realities of what did occur in the last four or five years. Once that happened, once it became clear that those weapons weren’t there, what happened was the enormous deployment of journalistic effort to come to grips with what had been done. I can point you to… let’s just start with Woodward, who initially wrote very Bush administration briefed books about the build up to the conflict, but once it had gone wrong wrote books that were hugely revelatory about what went wrong. James Risen didn’t make the first mistake, but he did write a blistering series of articles and that book, State of War, about what really happened with the intelligence. Rob Susskind – they’re all Pulitzer prize winners, and I could point you to 20 books, a whole string of exemplary journalism, including 60 Minutes. Journalism that went to town about trying to find out what the real truth is now. What’s interesting about that journalism is that whether it’s in articles, book form or on television, all that journalism rested on information provided to those reporters by insiders. By people who had played inside roles in those events. Whether it was former Secretary of State Powell briefing Woodward on one hand or Monty Gonzalez being one of our consultants – people on the inside, hearing the truth about what happened, reach out to a press determined now to make good on the mistakes of that period is what led us today to understanding what went wrong.
The past is very important to look at and I’m very proud of this film because I think it exactly nails, in a distilled way, what went down on the eve of war. How they manipulated, lied to, misled and used the press, and I think it nails that without becoming about Judith Miller. I think it brings us up to date. We do now know broadly what happened because of people like Miller. Yes, you’re absolutely right that there’s a redemptive end, like you need at the end of a movie. And I have no problem with that because I don’t want to make films that make people depressed when they leave the theater. I didn’t want to do that in United 93, I didn’t want to do that in Bloody Sunday, and I certainly wouldn’t do it in this film. Cinema has got to be a redemptive experience. It does have to speak to our ability to move forward. If you have that as your touchstone, it means you can go to the dark places and examine, through a a really clear, action-dominated story, you can sort of take that journey and feel released. You go, ‘I’ve lived through it. That’s how it went down.’ But you lived through it with a moral hero, and that moral hero is us. And now you’re ready to move on.
That’s my theory anyway.