a long talk

With News of the World, Paul Greengrass Went for Optimism

After making Bloody Sunday and 22 July, the director of the new Tom Hanks Western says he’s interested in what a road to healing looks like. Photo: Bruce W. Talamon/Universal Studios

On its surface, an elegiac Western like News of the World might seem like quite a departure for director Paul Greengrass, who rose to fame on the strength of jittery, modern-day thrillers of both the pulpy (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum) and the serious (United 93, Captain Phillips) kinds. In truth, the director tells me, he had always wanted to make a Western — he just never thought he’d get the chance. Perhaps more important, the new film, which stars Tom Hanks and takes place in a bitterly divided Texas in the years following the Civil War, is perfectly in keeping with Greengrass’s decades-long interest in politically devastated settings, offering an interesting and surprisingly optimistic take on broken societies and the necessity of healing.

We last talked around the release of your 2018 film, 22 July, which was about the 2011 right-wing terror attacks in Norway. At the time, you were understandably quite distraught about the state of the world. 
I was very, very concerned, obviously, by the rise of the violent far right. And that concern has only deepened since, to be honest. I think the problem has only gotten worse. But in a way, that led to me making News of the World. The joy of making films is that you get to have an extended conversation with yourself about what’s important to you. One film begets another. 22 July was ultimately about one young man and one family caught up in this terrible attack and their attempt to overcome it. I think one of the extraordinary things about Norway was that it showed that you could face this down, but at enormous cost. Afterward, I did feel a strong desire to make a film that was more optimistic, a film that looks farther down the road to healing. What might that look like?

When I read News of the World, I thought, Well, this is it. This character of the lonely newsreader who wanders around Texas in 1870 in the shadow of the Civil War — he’s lost everything, and all he has is a satchel full of old newspapers that he buys from time to time. He goes from community to community, most of them very isolated, at a time when America is bitterly divided, with no clear road out. But he’s a little thread that starts to reconnect communities with local news. Stories of the meningitis epidemic. Stories of redemption. Funny stories that took people away from their lives. But also news that people had to adjust to that were unpopular, about the 14th Amendment and the abolition of slavery. Then he finds the mysterious little girl, and the journey becomes, for both of them, one of healing, to find where they belong. I thought, This is very contemporary, oddly.

Also, I grew up on Westerns. I’d never ever thought I would get to make one. I was one of the people involved with that Netflix series Five Came Back, and I chose John Ford. So I had sat for a month and rewatched and studied all of John Ford’s films. He was very much in my mind. And Paulette Jiles’s novel is sort of The Searchers in reverse, isn’t it? It’s not the man going to find the child out in the desert; it’s the man bringing the child home.

You seem to be drawn to settings that have been factionalized and ruined: Northern Ireland in Bloody Sunday, U.S.-occupied Iraq in Green Zone, Somalia in Captain Phillips. Post–Civil War Texas in News of the World is basically a failed state at this point.
Right. Not part of the Union at that point. It’s lost territory. Texas First — that was what the movement was. Am I drawn to those? I suppose every filmmaker has things they gravitate toward — themes, characters, situations, genres. And within those, they can work out their interests. For me, I started when I was a very young man on a television documentary program called World in Action. It was really my university, both in terms of making films and, more importantly, in terms of seeing the world up close in all its violence and dislocation. World in Action was a mélange of lots of different things wrapped into filmmaking: There was a lot of documentary, a lot of reportage, a lot of journalism, a lot of strange televisual stunts that turned into programs, a lot of agitprop politics. It was a riotous mix, but it was also a pretty rigorous program. You were taught to go out into the world to its most extreme places. And you had to come back with a film that made sense of it.

That was where I learned to shoot. That’s where I learned to write. That’s where I learned to be eye level with your audience and to be inside an event — whether it was apartheid South Africa, or the chaos and bloodshed of the Middle East, or Central America or Northern Ireland. Those are the lessons you learn. You learn what violence looks like, what political chaos looks like, what tension feels like.

At what point did you realize you needed to do more than World in Action
Live Aid, funnily enough, was quite an important moment for me, the 1985 concert. It was probably less of a big deal in America than it was in Britain. I decided to make a program about Live Aid and ended up following Bob Geldof about. But I was already feeling strongly that I wanted to spread my wings. We were driving to Wembley on the day of the concert with the producers of what became the official Band Aid documentary. I remember Tara Prem, the producer, turning round to me in the car. She said, “So what do you want to do? What’s your ambition?” I must’ve been about 29. I said, “I’d love to make a film, but I don’t know how to do it.” They said, “Well, have you got an idea for a film?”

At the time, I was writing secretly a thing called Resurrected, about the Falklands War. It was based on a true story about a young soldier who went missing on the last night of the war, when there was a particularly vicious battle on Mount Tumbledown, which was the last battle before the capital of the Falkland Islands fell. And in the fighting, this young soldier, who was only just 18, went missing. He was presumed to have been killed. Back at home, he was buried with full military honors, because it was assumed he’d been hit by mortar or something and literally obliterated. And you had to be in Britain at the time — it was like the whole country took a main-line fix of jingoism. I mean, there is a straight line that runs from the Falklands to Brexit, undoubtedly. That’s not to say that we were wrong to do what we did; they were a horrible right-wing junta, and they’d invaded sovereign territory. But it was whipped up into this distasteful spasm of jingoism. And about 40 days later, after it was all over, one day this kid wandered out of the mist, down into a small farm, saying he’d lost his memory. And what followed was a chain of desperate circumstances. It was perfectly obvious from the beginning that this kid had … I hesitate to say deserted, but that’s essentially what he’d done. He had, in his terror and fear, got separated. And then probably he was too frightened to come home, and he’d hidden out in some shack. But rather than deal with it in a sensible way, [they turned him into] “the hero that came back from the dead.” He became the poster boy for all this jingoism. It went to the heart of what was wrong with how that event was processed. It was given the wrong meanings. And the way meanings are attached to events has been something that interests me.

When you describe Resurrected and the character of the supposedly amnesiac soldier, your Jason Bourne movies immediately come to mind. Is there a through line from that to Jason Bourne to Johanna in News of the World?
For sure, for sure. Characters who are lost and found. Yep, I think that’s true.

But also whose very existence goes against the prevailing narrative.
Yes, I think that’s right. It’s probably quite a bit of me in there. As you grow older, you see the contours of your life more clearly than you do when you’re younger. And that’s wrapped up in the mystery of why filmmakers make films. I have a theory about it, which is that it’s connected quite strongly to loneliness in childhood and cinematic experience in childhood, the two together. My childhood was not desperately unusual, I suppose, but I was troubled and unhappy. I did find refuge at the movies from a young age. My grandmother would take me on Saturday mornings. My father would take me. And he wasn’t around much when I was young because he was a seafarer — he was at sea most of my childhood. He loved David Lean movies. When he was home, he would take me up to the West End — which was a big deal to travel from the gray suburbs of outer London, or where we were living, in Gravesend — and we would go out up to the Odeon Leicester Square. I could picture Zhivago. I can remember what seat I was in.

The experience of being in the cinema when you’re young and vulnerable and probably lonely in your soul has a profound effect on you. I was very struck reading the David Lean biography, that Lean himself described some of these same things. He was much, much older than me, obviously, but he grew up in a similar part of London. Suburban, aimless, vacant. And he described seeing the light in the cinema cutting across the darkness. He said he felt like a pious boy looking at the sunlight coming through a cathedral window and the transporting quality of it — the feeling that suddenly you weren’t alone. These things then go straight into your cortex in this intense way. And I think that filmmaking becomes a kind of attempt to re-create those childhood experiences. Which, of course, means that it’s always Sisyphean, because you can never re-create any experience in adulthood that’s as intense as the ones you have as a child. But you’re driven to try each time.

You were saying you were a troubled child. How so?
That’s maybe overly dramatic. I got a bit lost in my teenage years. I was rebellious and nonconformist and angry. Britain was a smashed-up place. I was a failure on a pretty epic scale until I was about 15. I’d been kicked out of school. But the world of the early ’70s, late ’60s was much more forgiving to troubled kids than it is today. I was offered the opportunity to go to a very good school with a very benevolent teacher. It was a school that had a wonderful art room where I learned to paint and draw. I’d be there until one or two in the morning. It was my place where I could hide. And then, one day, I found an old Bolex camera in a bottom drawer in the back of the room there. I pestered the art teacher: “What’s this? Can I get a bit of film for it? I want to have a go.” Astonishingly, he got me a piece of film. It would have been 16 mil. And I made my first film when I was about 16, 17. I remember feeling, for the first time since being in those cinema houses as a child, a sense of peace and purpose. What came out, of course, was 34 seconds of absolute dross, which I found, quite a few years ago, in a can somewhere — it was this sort of mash-up Buñuel horror film made with dolls and black ink! Therein lies your first lesson as a filmmaker: You embark on every film with an image in your mind of something astonishing and then when you finally see what you’ve done, it’s always this utter desolation.

You talk about how rebellious you were, and then I look at how you described your work on World in Action, going off to all these different troubled corners of the world. And then I look at your career as a filmmaker, where you’re going off all over the place. And then I think about your dad, who was a seafarer. It seems like you were a very restless person from a restless family.
I think that is definitely true. My father, who’s still alive — he’s 95 now — he went to sea very, very young. He left school at 15. He wanted to go to sea and then the war came. All ships were requisitioned. You were all part of the Navy, whether you are on a merchant ship or warship. And he came from a very devout Baptist family. They were the Strict and Particular Baptists. I mean, that is what they’re called: the Strict and Particular Baptists. My father’s not at all religious. I’m sure one of the reasons he went to sea was because he wasn’t religious. But my parents were chalk and cheese. It was a turbulent marriage, as many postwar marriages were. And the seafaring marriage, I would say, is a marriage between a solitary who travels and a very strong woman who stays. So when they come back together, there’s this colossal collision of wills. But it occurs within a framework of deep acceptance of the life. I’ll give you an example of that: My dad might be away nine months. One time, I think he was away 18 months. In those days, there were not many telephones. You’d get a letter. But whenever he was coming back — it would not matter where it was in the country, if it was Liverpool, 300 miles away, or wherever it was, whatever time — she would always be there with us, which is amazing.

What did your dad think of Captain Phillips?
Well, I’ll tell you a true story. When I made Phillips, of course, I made it with him in mind, because that was his job. And I remember we had the screening, and he came. It was, I think, the last film of mine he saw, because it was getting kind of hard for him to be in a cinema. I made a little speech and said I’d had my dad very much in mind, and that as I grew older, I realized that I am my father’s son. Because when you make a film, it’s a little bit like doing what Captain Phillips does: You have a map, and you plot your course, and you have a crew. And your job is to get the cargo through the weather, through whatever, to the port on time with your crew intact. That’s your job. And so, strangely, I am my father’s son. That was really why I did it.

Afterward, he said to me, “What the fuck are you talking about?” [Laughs.] He said, “I had a proper job!” He said, “I used to have to get up at four in the fucking morning, in a howling gale, with the ship turning itself over. What the fuck? We didn’t have lunch in fancy restaurants!” He was being funny, up to a certain point. I think he enjoyed that film. But, yeah.

For World in Action, would you get an assignment to go after a certain story, or were you looking for the story yourself? 
You have to find them. You were just given tremendous latitude. My first Northern Ireland film was 1980, I think it was, when the hunger strikes started. One of them was a man called Raymond McCartney. He was my age, or near enough. I remember thinking, This is extraordinary. There is this man who’s about to starve himself to death. He’s my age. His early teenage years would have been prior to the Troubles. So presumably, he’d been listening to the same pop music as me. He’d have been attracted to girls at the same time as me. He’d have watched the same football matches as me. His childhood would have been in many ways similar to mine, because Derry is only, what, 400 miles, 300 miles as the crow flies from London. And yet he’s ended up in a prison, announcing that he’s going to starve himself to death, in a shit-smeared “Dirty Protest” cell. I remember saying to the [World in Action] editor, “What accounts for that? I get all the best things that this country has to offer — the educational opportunities, the chance to come and work here — and he ends up dead.” He said, “Yeah, fine, go.” And that became the start of a long involvement in making films in Northern Ireland.

They let me in to see [McCartney] when he was on hunger strike. And it had the most profound effect on me as a young man. [The Maze Prison] had these long corridors, and the noise, once they knew someone was in the prison who was an outsider, would be deafening. There would be a card on each door: “Name, date of birth, sentence.” It was ’57, ’54, ’55, ’59 — all around my age. By the way, I’m not romanticizing what the IRA did at all. I was very opposed to the armed struggle, and that’s really why I made Bloody Sunday: in order to celebrate the politicians who tried to build peace, as opposed to the warriors who made war. But to see these cells open, and you’d see these two figures naked, except for their brown blankets, in a cell smeared with shit all over the walls and the ceiling. That’s what the Dirty Protest was.

They took me to see Raymond McCartney. I was allowed to be with him for three minutes. Raymond McCartney came off hunger strike at the very end, so he lived, and ended up commanding the prisoners inside the Maze. They played a pivotal role in the peace process — there was no point having a peace process outside the prison, because by then there were obviously hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian divide who were in prison for long stretches. Around the time when I started making Bloody Sunday, I actually went to see him again. We spent the day together. He’d done 25 years or something. And we went for a walk, decades after we’d had this strange three-minute encounter when he was close to death. I asked him all the questions I wanted to ask him. He’d put the guns away. I was thinking of making Bloody Sunday, but I said, “I don’t want it to be a film about war. I want it to be part of peace-building.”

We talked about the idea of healing, and even hope, in News of the World. Having covered the Troubles, and seeing peace actually achieved in Northern Ireland — after so many years of people saying it would be impossible — is that the kind of thing that allows you to have hope in other contexts, in other places?
Unquestionably. For anyone who lived through those events. And my involvement was peripheral in the extreme. But I did go there a lot. When you’ve stood in those places, whether it’s Rossville Street in Derry, where civilians were shot by British soldiers, or, conversely, Warrenpoint, where something like 20 British soldiers were killed, or Enniskillen, where an IRA bomb killed many innocent people, or Omagh, the last bomb of the war. [Omagh] was the worst loss of life. And I subsequently made another film about it after Bloody Sunday … you can’t reflect on these things without a sense of despair. It felt like it was endless and going to last forever.

But in the end, politics came through. The center was revived — if I can put it that way, because that’s really what we’re talking about when we talk about today, from extremes. And it was revived by a desire on all sides to make the peace: successive American administrations, but particularly the Clinton administration, and successive Irish and British governments, both sides of the sectarian divide. But it took many, many, many years to rebuild the center. That’s why I made the central character in Bloody Sunday Ivan Cooper, the politician who lost everything that day, because it was the moment when, definitively, the centrist politics lost and the men of war took over.

Today, when we look at our division and bitterness, whether in the U.S. or Britain — I mean, we’re split down the middle with Brexit, which is really another name for English nationalism — we will come through, but it’s going to be a long, long road. And there’s going to be a lot of dark days between now and getting to a better place. But I am optimistic, because I’m an optimistic person. And because I’m a parent, and you shouldn’t be a parent if you’re not optimistic.

I watched Bloody Sunday again a couple of days ago, and I was curious about how you went about re-creating that event. Obviously, your style developed through the documentary tradition, but that film feels like it must have been an immense production — it looks like you basically re-staged Bloody Sunday and then just went into the middle of it with cameras.
That’s basically what we did! That’s outlandish, isn’t it? There’s no film that you can make that can tell a story like reality can. Bloody Sunday had been the cause of so many young people joining the Provisional IRA. It was a rallying cry for them. And a lot of lies had been told about it. The idea was that if we gathered together people from the Bogside, just the Catholic part of Derry, who were either there on that day as children or had parents and family there, and a group of former British soldiers, all of whom had served in the Troubles and so had their own, very different perspectives and memories … we could bring these two groups together, and a group of actors drawn from all sides of the sectarian divide, and for eight to ten weeks, we could gather together, and consider together this terrible event, and try to make our sense of it. What did we think happened? Lots is known, but lots isn’t known. But we can, as a group, discuss it and create a version of it — our collective truth — to replace the contested truth.

It seems quite risky. Did you worry about failing?
I remember the first day of filming. There were about 500 people from the Bogside, up at one end of the street, and about 100 British soldiers, all wearing their paratroop hats. And there was this chasm between them. I thought, Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’ve done the worst thing in the entire history of the world. It felt like it was all going to go horribly wrong. And then a friend of mine, Don Mullen, who’d actually been there on Bloody Sunday, the day — he was a young boy; he’d been on the barricades — he walked across from the Bogsiders, across what looked like no-man’s-land, of about 100 yards, walked over to the soldiers who were feeling … There was just a terrible electricity in the air, a tension. And Don walked up — I’ll never forget it. He looked at the first guy, and he shook his hand, and he said, “My name’s Don Mullen. Thank you very much for coming. I really admire you for coming. Let’s talk.” And before you know it, everybody’s in the pub having drinks.

I don’t want to idealize it, but the point is those conversations happened, where before they would never have. I remember Simon Mann, who played the commander. He was very senior SAS; he’d served in the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the Special Forces. And one of the guys on the Bogside was [IRA second-in-command] Martin McGuinness’s brother. They go down to the pub, and I introduce them to each other. Of course, had they known each other of old, when they’d been in it, they would have killed each other. I remember Simon saying to him, “Feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it, when all that was going on?” McGuinness looked him in the eye and said “Aye.” He said, “Yeah, and then again, just feels like yesterday.”

With News of the World, Paul Greengrass Went for Optimism