Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Paul Greengrass

United We Stand

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Paul Greengrass Movies on DVD

I've been grappling with Paul Greengrass's United 93 since I saw it, trying to come to terms with how it affected me and why it was made. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Greengrass last week, and he seems to be grappling with the very same things -- long after the film is finished. This was a little more than an interview; it was a conversation. Greengrass was just as curious how I'd responded as I was about why he'd made it. He spoke slowly, weighing his thoughts, but always providing a counter-thought, as if correcting himself. I was given only 15 minutes, and I had many more, different questions that went unanswered. I don't think either of us really answered our questions, but it was an interesting talk.

I asked this first question as a kind of warm-up, hoping to get to the tough stuff later, but we spent most of the time talking over its nuances.

JMA: Your movie made me think of Battleship Potemkin (1925), in that it's driven more like a socialist collective instead of by one single character. You could have cast a Bruce Willis or a Matt Damon and made them the hero. Can you please talk about this idea, this notion of the collective hero?

PG: I definitely consciously didn't want film stars in it. It would be a distraction from the fact that these are ordinary folk. Secondly, I wanted to signal very clearly that this is a small film. It's not a big Hollywood movie. What I would say is that if you look at that sort of strain of filmmaking in Britain, which is documentary realism, Humphrey Jennings, Grierson. I mean, that's really where I began. That locates me more than the Russians. When I was a student, Potemkin and Battle of Algiers were the two great films about politics in action. And about violence and anarchy and how it gets created and that there's always an interplay between the collective will and an individual moment. Those were all things in my mind. I wanted it to be a film with lots of people in it. I wanted it to be a claustrophobic film with lots of people in it.

JMA: I have to tell you I was physically shaking. I was sweating, and I couldn't stop my hands from shaking.

PG: It didn't feel exploitive, did it?

JMA: Pauline Kael would say this, that film in its nature is exploitative, but I think you did as remarkable a job as could possibly have been done by any human being on this subject.

PG: That's very kind. I mean, we tried to make it in the right way. Whether we succeeded or not is another matter. They're painful, disturbing events, aren't they? You've got to come to the heart of it. There's almost a strain of people criticizing you for making it realistic, which is sort of an odd one. In the end, you can always tell. I watch things with hand-held cameras and they leave me cold.

JMA: That's the other thing I like about you is that you're one of the few guys who can really do the hand-held camera. Most guys just shake it around with no concept of the art of the thing. Of course, you had [cinematographer] Barry Ackroyd (Land and Freedom, My Name Is Joe) on this.

PG: He's a genius.

(Pause) I mean, I thought a little bit, to be honest, about 'Guernica,' the Picasso painting. I looked at that painting quite a bit -- just the idea that you take one event and make it stand up. If you look at that painting, tiny little details all come together. It's not a formal tableau, and it's not a single character. I suppose what I most wanted it to explore was the relationship between individual moments and collective will, and the interplay on both sides, between the hijackers and the passengers. So the film starts, and you're with the hijackers. They select passengers -- that's what they did. The classic way you'd start a film like this is to start it with pre-selected groups of passengers that you would follow, wakes up in the morning, kisses the wife goodbye, pilot puts his uniform on. All that stuff. The problem in that is that it felt very contrived, because in the end, I've selected the people. There's something of a loaded dice. The truth of this event was that the hijackers selected this flight. There were a thousand flights, but they chose that one. So I wanted to bring them all to the gate and sit them down, and then find the passengers, slowly reveal the passengers.

(He ponders some more.) I didn't want to lose the idea of the collective sense. You're absolutely right, it does have its roots all the way back through Jennings. You can't lead if the group's not there with the will, and vice versa. Where does leadership come from? It comes from the desire to be led. It also feels realistic that way, you know? Whatever did or didn't happen on that airplane, it must have followed the dynamic of the hijackers pinning them in the back, so a revolution took place on that plane, when those four guys jumped up. The order of the airplane was completely subverted. It was changed around. They seized control of the plane, pinned everybody in the back and they were in charge, and something happened in the course of 20-25 minutes.

JMA: The really interesting thing is that it turns from being a collective to a more American, gung-ho experience where you want the Americans to pull a John Wayne and beat the living tar out of these guys.

PG: But do you feel that all the way?

JMA: No, not at all. It's a very delicate shift.

PG: But what did you feel when they went down the aisle?

JMA: My adrenaline was hammering. 'Get 'em!'

PG: And then, as it went along? Does it sustain all the way to the end?

JMA: Yes. I think it does.

PG: I used to say to the actors: When you get up out of your seats, you're those people then. You're not fighting for a political cause. You have no sense of slogans, because you have no knowledge of what's to come. You just want to get home. But, in the way we play out those six or seven minutes, which is what it was, I wanted to feel that we move through time as well. As that conflict unfolds, I want us to feel, as well as being those individuals then, that they're us now. And they're us tomorrow. When I see that film, I suppose I sort of feel that somewhere outside the cockpit -- when they're really rolling around and it's become a sort of brutal struggle -- I sort of feel that's today. And then when they're in the cockpit, grabbing for the wheel, I feel that's tomorrow.

(He ponders some more.) I wanted it to be inspiring, and -- not a John Wayne film. The thing I really wanted it to be -- and I don't know if you got this at all -- do you know the Rorschach test? The ink blot?

JMA: Yes.

PG: I definitely -- I remember looking at 'Guernica' and thinking, there's something of the Rorschach test in that. And I think that's also true of the Eisenstein films. They're constructed in such multiplicity, because they don't follow one character. They're very porous, open texts. You can see in them projected what you want. Your hopes and fears and phobias and dreams.

JMA: That's the point I was making. It's both political ends of the spectrum, this film. It's a left-wing film and a right-wing film.

PG: Exactly. That's what I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be open enough that you could access it from wherever you were on the spectrum. Open enough to get you in there, from wherever you came from, but rigid enough to confront you wherever you stood. Do you see what I mean? So if you're broadly speaking that the war on terror, the response to 9/11 has been a good thing, then you'd go yes. However, its conclusion, its end result, I think challenges that. Equally if you're on the other side, if you think that everything has been wrong. I think you see lots at the end that confirms that view, but you've always got that challenge of: what do you do when a bunch of people take over an airplane? You can't just sit there!

JMA: Yes. I totally agree. I definitely got that.

PG: That's good. That's what I wanted. I suppose what I feel is that both these points of view are quite morally driven. Even though you may disagree with one or another. And the reason they're morally driven is because they go back to this event. I didn't want to say to people, 'this is what I think the solution is.' I wanted it to be a drama of hard choices. And I think that's where we are.

April 27, 2006

See also my review of United 93.

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