Paul Greengrass: ‘Storytelling is under attack’

Paul Greengrass: “I’m not blind to the problems, but I think [streaming] will be good for the business.” File photograph:   Alberto E Rodriguez/Getty/DGA
The director on the benefits of streaming and his new Tom Hanks western, News of the World

Paul Greengrass has heard all the shaky camera jokes before. The director’s kinetic, naturalistic style of film-making – which enlivened and defined the Jason Bourne franchise – was forged by the director’s “ripped-from-the-headlines” subjects. He learned his craft working on Granada Television’s investigative current-affairs series World in Action during the 1980s.

Resurrected, his 1989 debut feature, concerned the court-martial of an MIA soldier (David Thewlis) in the Falklands. Other notable early projects included The Fix (1997), a drama concerning the British football betting scandal of 1964; and The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (1999), an account of the youngster’s death and the inadequate subsequent investigation by the London Metropolitan Police.

The trademark Greengrass aesthetic, however, was properly established with Bloody Sunday, a 2002 recreation of the 1972 shootings in Derry, and United 93, a 2006 docudrama chronicling the events aboard United Airlines flight 93 after the aircraft was hijacked during the September 11th attacks of 2001.

I caught up with Greengrass some weeks ahead of the 49th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, and some months after the British public prosecution service’s announcement that it would stick to its original decision to bring charges against no more than one soldier – codenamed Soldier F – in relation to Bloody Sunday.

When News of the World came along I recognised an opportunity to make a classical-feeling and classically-structured film with a slower tempo

“I felt so sad for those families,” he says. “I’ve corresponded with John Kelly and the families. And, as they have said, the fight goes on. As long as they are able to walk. You know, the dignity of those families is astonishing. I know they will continue to campaign until they get the full justice that they deserve. This is only a very small part of the justice that they deserve. But it’s not the end of the matter. I’m certain of that.”

Political awareness

Greengrass’s political awareness and his immediate, socially-conscious cinematic output doesn’t mark him out as an obvious director to helm a western – although he did contribute to the profiling of John Ford in Five Came Back, a three-part Netflix documentary charting the efforts of Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and George Stevens on the second World War frontline.

News of the World, in which a US civil war veteran (Tom Hanks) seeks to reunite a young girl (System Crasher’s Helena Zengel) raised by Native Americans with her settled German relatives is, Greengrass concedes, something of a career curveball.

News of the World sees US civil war veteran (Tom Hanks) seeking to reunite a young girl (Helena Zengel) raised by Native Americans with her settled German relatives.
News of the World sees US civil war veteran (Tom Hanks) seeking to reunite a young girl (Helena Zengel) raised by Native Americans with her settled German relatives.

“I’ve never made a film that was full-on historical,” he says. “And I never thought I would get to make a western. So when News of the World came along I recognised an opportunity to make a classical-feeling and classically-structured film with a slower tempo. When we made Five Came Back, I spent a lot of time watching John Ford movies and thinking about them. So I think that was in my mind as well when I came to write the screenplay. It’s very obvious to me that this is The Searchers but in reverse.”

Following on from the piracy thriller Captain Phillips, News of the World marks the director’s second collaboration with Tom Hanks. Not entirely unlike Greengrass himself, Hanks’s character is a news man. He earns a living travelling town to town along the frontier between Texas and Indian Territory, reading aloud from newspapers. That vocation, and the very concept of “the news”, feel both quaint and contemporary when viewed from our post-truth society.

Telling the news

“I felt it was incredibly contemporary,” says Greengrass. “The idea of someone travelling with a handful of newspapers doing readings, telling them the news, in barns and dusty town squares is a way of connecting people through the whole healing power of stories. And as the film progresses his storytelling is challenged. He’s asked to read propaganda. There is an audience who don’t want to hear federal news. This is Texas and to hell with amendments.

“And I liked that because it reflects where we are. Storytelling is under attack. It’s under attack because Covid means that we can’t gather as we please in homes and restaurants and pubs. We are a storytelling animal. We love stories from the time we are children. And it’s under attack because we live in a society – not only in my country, but in the US – where people want to replace lies with truth and truth with lies.”

Director Paul Greengrass with Tom Hanks on the set of News of the World. Photograph: Universal Pictures
Director Paul Greengrass with Tom Hanks on the set of News of the World. Photograph: Universal Pictures

News of the World has, in common with many incoming supposed Oscar contenders, experienced a chequered delivery history. The film was initially optioned by the now-shuttered Fox 2000 before landing at Universal Studios after Disney’s Fox takeover. Universal managed a brief theatrical release stateside at Christmas, but on this side of the Atlantic Netflix snapped up the distribution rights. That makes it Greengrass’s third collaboration with the streaming giant.

“There is obviously a great crisis in the movie business at the moment and it’s actually two crises,” says the film-maker. “One is Covid, which has decimated the movie-theatre business. Even when cinemas have been open, people don’t want to go for obvious reasons. That’s a global phenomena and it has affected movie production. But we will recover from that I’m perfectly certain.

“The second and larger crisis is a profound change that has been driven by technology. Streaming and consumer choice, particularly among young people who want their movies delivered to them at the click of a button, cannot be held back. It’s inevitable.

Streaming

“When I was a kid, you went to see a film when it came to town and you might not see it again for 10 or 15 years. Now young people see a movie and if they love it they want to watch it 10 times. It’s a different kind of consumption. I personally don’t see that as a threat to cinema.

“I’m not blind to the problems, but I think it will be good for the business. I think that what’s going to happen – and it’s already happening – is that streaming releases will open alongside theatrical releases. We’ve seen this with Disney and Warners and Universal. You can already see studios starting to develop streaming services and equally you can see that the streamers, like Netflix, are developing a theatrical capability. We’re going to have to live with both systems delivering movies at the same time. Because that’s what people want.”

As a parent, as your children get older, you become more concerned with the world you’re leaving them

Netflix, he says, is an obvious fit for the kind of serious dramas that the franchise-oriented studios are no longer interested in making. The film 22 July, Greengrass’s thoughtful take on far-right terrorist Anders Breivik and the 2011 Norway attacks, is a perfect test case, he says.

“I had a great experience with Netflix on 22 July,” says Greengrass. “If I had made that as a small theatrical film, it probably would’ve been seen by, what, a few hundred thousand people at most? But I felt very strongly that it was a film that needed to be seen by young people. As a parent, as your children get older, you become more concerned with the world you’re leaving them. 22 July is about young people and about the far-right threat that is facing them.

“We know that far-right extremism is a massive problem across Europe. And obviously in the US. The last time I checked with Netflix, 30 million people plus had seen that movie. And that’s fantastic. I can only say good things. Small films like that can and will achieve radically larger audiences through Netflix than they could ever possibly have achieved through a conventional theatrical release.”

News of the World streams on Netflix from February 10th