csaThis is how you interview Paul Greengrass: get out of his way. The man has things to say, and you just keep up with him. He’s excited, and it’s exciting to listen to him, especially when he hits on a topic that he has obviously thought a lot about – like the post-9/11 world.

The last time I talked to Paul he was deep in pre-production on an adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Having talked to him and having read the script I can tell you that this would have been a great movie. It wouldn’t have just been a great adaptation of a difficult to adapt text, it would have just been a great movie. But that wasn’t meant to be – Paramount pulled the plug on it. But Paul bounced back quickly, announcing he would make Flight 93, the true story of the 9/11 plane that was crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

I talked to him on a couple of days as he was driving home from the set. Even after a long day at work – it was 9PM English time – Paul was filled with energy. Our conversations, by the way, aren’t over. There’s still more we have to talk about, so this interview – part 2 of which will run next week – is just the beginning.

On Tuesday the 20th, you’ll get your own chance to put some questions to Paul when he participates in an online chat from 8 to 9pm at the official site for the film, http://www.flight93themovie.com By the way, you can head over to the forum on that site right now and check out how available Paul is, as he’s answering all sorts of questions people have.

Obviously his new movie was something I wanted to talk about, but first I thought it was important to follow up on our previous epic conversation.

Q: Last time we had talked, we talked about Watchmen. What happened with that exactly?

Greengrass: It was a slightly surreal experience. I guess you get used to it, I suppose. It was my first experience of it. The film’s going and then all of a sudden it’s cancelled. I didn’t really enjoy it, I must be honest. It was slightly surreal because Watchmen felt very good.

Other projects in the past, where you’re trying to get them into production, you’re trying to get them up, and you get them very close and there’s that horrible times when you think you’re up and you’re actually not quite up – you slip down the greasy pole again. Whenever that’s happened to me I could look back and I’ve gone, ‘I can see why that project didn’t go.’ Either there was something wrong with the idea, or the screenplay wasn’t quite strong enough, it could be a number of reasons. The two or three times it’s happened to me, I could see why. It’s been for the best in a funny kind of way. This was a bit different, because to be honest I never had any doubt about making that film. We were up. When we spoke I wasn’t putting on an act. It felt real to me, and I was excited about it.

But then comes the times when you suddenly realize you’re on shifting corporate sands. It all happened very, very quickly.

Q: It was all studio politics, right? It was all about changing regimes at the studio.

Greengrass: Listen, these things you can either get on your high horse about it or you can be grown up about it. What was the root of the problem? One of the reasons was that the senior management at Paramount were changed. That happens from time to time. The new people coming in didn’t want to make it. It’s a simple fact.

Sound Mixer Chris Munro prepares for a take

In a way you have to respect that. In the real world those guys have to make their decisions. Whoever is running a studio has got to make decisions about a film they really want to make. You can’t complain, I suppose, if you want bold choices to be made, if the people exercising power make choices and you don’t happen to agree with them. That’s at the bottom of it. Brad Grey and Gail Berman came in to run the studio. If I had been in their position and was brought in to run the studio, I would want to make my own choices. I wouldn’t want to take the choices of the previous regime necessarily. Maybe I might, maybe I might not. But you certainly scrutinize them, and that’s what they did.

And in the end it was their decision that they didn’t want to make Watchmen. I can speculate as to the reasons why, I don’t really know. I had a meeting with them where I explained to them why I thought it was a good film for them to make. Why I thought it was a good bet, if you like, commercially and creatively and critically. Fundamentally what does it come down to? Fundamentally it comes down to the fact that there are very few iconic properties around – in any genre. Thriller, comedy, there are few iconic properties. Watchmen is a truly iconic property. And worthy of a film being made of it.

But from their point of view? I don’t know, the reasons why were immaterial to me. All I needed to know is that they didn’t want to make it. There’s no point in me having a debate with them about it. I don’t think it’s where they as a studio wanted to go.

Q: Do you think Watchmen is behind you now, or is it something that might still be in your future one day?

Greengrass: I think it might still be in my future. I couldn’t say it’s definitely behind me. It’s not a film I’m going to make now because I’m making the film I’m making. I was really disappointed. I felt like we were really finding the film, and the right reasons to make it. And we were going about it in the right way.

There was a grisly period of three or four weeks where you feel that it’s going down, but you hope that – you can’t quite believe it because they spent a certain amount of money and there were lots of people employed.

Inside a model of Flight 93

Q: Things were very far along. You had a great script.

Greengrass: All films are like airplanes. They taxi out to the end of the runway and then they get clearance from the tower and then they accelerate down the runway and they reach V1 and it’s too late to pull it back. We were fueled up, passengers on, and we had gone out and we were just at the end of the runway, but we hadn’t reached V1. It was just possible for them to pull us back.

I have no arguments about it. I wish they had made, I think it was the right decision to make it, but I have no arguments. And you know what? You can always take the view – and I do – that there are more films to make than you could possibly make in a lifetime. When a film goes down –

Q: Another one comes up.

Greengrass: You have to view it that it wasn’t the time for this one, but maybe it will come along soon. In the meantime, I’ll do this. Flight 93. Which actually was a film I had thought about doing a few years ago.

Q: You had considered it soon after 9/11?

Greengrass: Not too long after. I had always been interested in it, but it wasn’t something that I – I tracked it. I read pieces on it, always was interested in it. What happened was that after Watchmen fell down I had a couple of weeks off, just to sort of get away from it, and then you come back to an empty desk. You have this part where you put your files away and now you have an empty office. You think, ‘Alright, now the next twelve months are open. What am I going to do?’

Part of the thing was that I wanted to shoot something this year. I was ready. I like to shoot.

Q: You wanted to get back on the horse.

Greengrass: Exactly. Quickly. [Producer Lloyd Levin and I] were chatting one night about what to do next, and we were talking about Flight 93 and how I had always been interested in it, but I wasn’t sure it was the right time. And we talked about the Discovery thing [a Discovery Channel docudrama about the flight], so I knew that was sort of coming down. I was talking to Lloyd about why I felt that if I made something now, 9/11 was something I would like to address. I talked about Flight 93 in terms of it giving you an extraordinary way into 9/11. He just said, ‘You should make it. You really should.’ And I thought, ‘You know what? He’s right.’

So I decided to write something. I put aside a week to write something and see if what comes out can express the things that I think and feel about it. Which is what I did.

Q: A lot of people are saying that it’s still too soon for this kind of a film. What’s your response to that?

Greengrass: I think in the end that movies are the principal means of mass-communication. They’re the principal way that we tell stories about the way we’re living to each other. We tell stories to entertain ourselves, and to divert ourselves, and we tell stories that are wonderful pieces of escapism, to give us a nice time on a rainy day. There are all sorts of reasons why we like to tell stories to tell each other. But one of the things we do is tell stories about the way the world is. I believe in a movie industry that operates across the board – it makes all sorts of different types of films. Including films about the big stuff facing us. Hollywood has always done that, throughout it’s history. It’s always done that, as well as all the other things. And it will have to grapple with 9/11 because it’s the single most important event that’s occurred in our lifetime.

Director Paul Greengrass and camera operator Klemens Becker on the first day of
the shoot

It was already happening when I was sitting down thinking about doing this. Oliver Stone was doing his, there’s 102 Minutes. You can just feel when it’s in the air. I think it’s important to do that. I think it’s very, very important that we try to understand what happened and what it meant. For me the most important thing about this film is that it’s a film about 9/11 that can talk about just that – what happened. In a simple, unvarnished way, without being presented in an excessively fictionalized way. It can just give you the 9/11 experience.

That, in a way, ought to be the starting point. We’ll be grappling with and reflecting on 9/11 for years, in many different ways. There will be some fantastic films that will be purely fictional, of all types. A film that just gives you what happens on that day, which is a great place to start.

Q: If you’re trying to give us just what happened that day, Flight 93 is an interesting place to start, since there are things that we do know about that flight, but we have no idea about many of the details. There’s a lot we really don’t know. How do you handle that?

Greengrass: What you do is that you start with the story on the ground. That is as important as the story of what happened in the air, because the story on the ground is about the civilian air traffic control system and the military air traffic control system faced with, out of the clear blue sky, the most unimaginable and unimagined crisis. First one, then two, then three, then four planes – at that point they thought up to a dozen had been hijacked and were flying around, undetectable, heading God knows where.

That is a story which you can know to be absolute last detail how that played out. The grappling for information between the civilian system and the military system. The difficulties they had dealing with what they were dealing with. In effect what they were dealing with was a new world while they were still in the old one. What you have to do is put the building blocks of that in place so that you understand Flight 93 in it’s true context, that it was the last airplane.

What’s really interesting is that when you look at it like that, you realize something important about Flight 93, which is that it, in many ways, occurred in the post-9/11 world because of the quirk of fate that that airplane was delayed on the ground for forty-five minutes. Not long after it was airborne, the first two planes went into the World Trade Center. By the time Flight 93 was hijacked, the third plane had practically gone into the Pentagon.

Painting parts for the consoles for the Northeast Air Defense Sector set

What it means is that you had forty people – or slightly less, as some had been killed – essentially you had a small number of people on an airplane who were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world. For all the rest of us, whether we were in civilian air traffic control, Presidential bunkers, or just ordinary folks like us watching on TV, we knew something terrible was happening, but we didn’t really know what. We maybe knew it was terrorism, but we didn’t know what. But for those people on the airplane they knew exactly what it was, they could see what was facing them, and here’s the thing – they faced a terrible, terrible dilemma. The dilemma was: what do we do? Do we sit here and hope for the best? Or do we strike back at them before they do what we think they might be about to do? In the course of action of whatever those two choices we make, what are the chances of a good outcome from either of those two choices?

That dilemma is the post-9/11 dilemma. It’s the dilemma we have all faced since then. The things we face in our world – whether it’s Afghanistan or Iraq or Abu Ghraib, issues of world peace, issues of national security, it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum and how you view those issues. I would submit that all of us, whatever our persuasions are, all of us understand that that is the dilemma. What do we do? How do we deal with this thing?

To answer your question, we know from the fragments that we can we know from the airplane – the phone calls, the cockpit voice recorders, the evidence we can deduce from the other planes – we know they weighed, they debated the issue. They voted on it. In the end they acted, and there were consequences. I think that if you build this film up on a strong foundation of fact, that by the time you get to the last minutes of that airplane journey you’ll be inhabiting a debate that, whilst we cannot know exactly what it was, we know broadly how it goes – because it’s our debate now.

If you get 44 actors, and you get them to inhabit that situation, I believe you can get that truth – you really do.

Q: You’re filming this on a small airplane set with all of these actors, and it’s such a heavy story – what’s the mood like from day to day?

Greengrass: Fantastically disciplined and commited, I would say. I think people share that view that we need to address 9/11, and that’s what we’re here to do. What you have to do is be cool and disciplined and dispassionate and level-headed. Otherwise it becomes an exercise in simple emotionality. We have got to get to some of the truths of this thing in a simple way. Actors are fantastically good at doing that. They have the ability to show you things so that you can say, ‘Well, it must have been like that.’

The plane rocks violently during the hijacking

Q: One of the interesting differences between your film and Oliver Stone’s film is that he’s chosen a story with a happy ending. He has the two guys coming out of the rubble at the end. Yours ends tragically.

Greengrass: Listen, I think Flight 93 is an unbelievably inspiring story. You’re talking about exceptional courage. You’re talking about being at the heart of our world today. Thought provoking, yes, but you’re never going to make a story out of 9/11 and turn it into a happy ending truly, are you? Otherwise what are we saying here?

9/11, no matter where you are on the political spectrum, changed our world. It forced us to confront the way our world is going, and it presented us with some hard choices. That’s what a film needs to do, help us understand some of those things, but also of course take us to the heart of the human stories.

Next week: More about the post-9/11 world, conspiracy theories, The Bourne Ultimatum and more!