PAUL Greengrass was driving around Los Angeles a few weekends ago, conducting a private surveillance of the cinemas screening his new film The Bourne Supremacy. He found it gratifying to watch people buy tickets, for his own “egotistical reasons”. Every other film that Greengrass has directed was made for British television, and he says they were only ever seen by “me, my mum, and my mum’s best friend”, although that’s patently untrue.
He got to make this sequel to The Bourne Identity because many influential people were impressed by his ITV drama Bloody Sunday. But stalking the LA multiplexes on the opening weekend of his first Hollywood feature, he got close enough to hear what the audiences were saying on the way out. “You could hear them talking about how it seemed real and unusual for a mainstream action movie,” says Greengrass. “And you could almost feel them thinking about it. The thing I have learned from this experience, the thing that excites me about working this way, is that in the mainstream you really can connect with people.”
The Bourne Supremacy, which opened in the UK on Friday, continues the reluctant adventures of a fugitive government assassin (Matt Damon) who has forgotten his name, his past and his purpose, but none of his skills. It’s an unusually solemn summer thriller with an icy streak of realpolitik and fleeting glimmers of real soul, even more brilliantly crafted than Doug Liman’s original instalment, The Bourne Identity, which was an unexpected commercial success in 2002.
Even so, it’s difficult to guess how Greengrass’s name came up as the man to make the second one, or why he wanted to do it. Bloody Sunday, for all its reeling technique, was a small, serious film about that still-resounding day in 1972 when British paratroopers fired high-velocity bullets into a crowd of civil rights marchers in the Bogside area of Derry. Before that, Greengrass had retold several other headline stories in his own distinctive docudrama format – The Murder Of Stephen Lawrence, The One That Got Away (an eerie account of the notorious failed SAS Bravo Two Zero mission in the first Gulf war), and Resurrected, with David Thewlis as the army private who was left behind after the Falklands conflict.
Greengrass himself puts the question rhetorically: “What is there in my output that remotely looks like it was chosen to further an ambition to make blockbusters?” The aesthetics alone – the way he moves a camera, coupled with an editing signature that shatters film space into fragments – were probably enough to get him noticed. Bloody Sunday won awards at the Berlin and Sundance film festivals, and was released to acclaim in American arthouses. As far as Greengrass knows, independent-minded director Steven Soderbergh saw it, and recommended him as the European who could extend the hard, sharp edge of the Bourne franchise. “I was having a great time making my films,” he says. “And we couldn’t have expected Bloody Sunday to do so well. But after it did, it became obvious that there was going to be a film I could make over there. I had a look at two or three, but this was the one I thought I could do something with.”
To hear Greengrass tell it, he had never “hankered” after making big movies, but neither did he have an inflexible preference for low-budget TV projects over heavily-bankrolled Hollywood products. “Any film is about having a point of view and a voice. And any film you make will stand or fall on what you can make it say.” In taking this particular job, he did seem to be pointing away from the real world for the first time. He began his career at Granada Television in the late 1970s, and spent 10 years as a producer with the now-defunct documentary series World In Action.
One of his first assignments was to film IRA hunger strikers in the Maze prison. On another job, at the court-martial of a British soldier in Colchester Barracks, he met his film-making hero Alan Clarke, who was covering the same story for Central TV. Clarke’s blank, affectless and unsettling dramas about the banalities of sectarian violence (Elephant), or life on patrol in South Armagh (Contact), later inspired Greengrass to frame and reconstruct reality in roughly the same way.
“As a director,” he once said, “you have to try to be like Clarke. Anonymous, subversive, compassionate, moral. And it’s all in the looks and the movement.” He was also acutely aware, in dealing with true, emotive stories, of his obligations to the living and the dead. Stephen Lawrence’s parents Doreen and Neville, John Kelly, whose brother was shot dead on Bloody Sunday, and Ivan Cooper, the civil rights activist and Protestant MP for Bogside who was caught out in the streets that day: were all wary of his projects at first, but eventually went on the record to describe Greengrass as a film-maker with “integrity”.
A movie like The Bourne Supremacy, would seem to allow him a certain ethical freedom from that kind of responsibility. “Totally,” he agrees, “and I wanted that. I wanted to do something fun and different. And I liked the idea of trying to craft a mainstream genre thriller, and to do something interesting with it.” He insists that integrity was still required, and his point of view remained intact.
The original character, code-named Jason Bourne, was an irrelevant throwback, conceived during the cold war by author Robert Ludlum as an American, amnesiac version of Fleming’s James Bond, and chronicled in the cloddish prose of his fat paperback bestsellers. Greengrass is exasperated that Bond has remained the popular model for the fictional spy so far beyond his time and context. “Bond is an establishment insider, and he really likes it,” he says. “He’s an imperialist, he’s a misogynist, he loves killing people. He’s reactionary from the bow-tie to the fucking Martini. The films can be entertaining, but the values I spit on, if I’m honest.”
These Bourne films, by contrast – and particularly this second one – sketch out a more recognisable Europe of motorways and modern cities, where unilateral security operations are being mishandled by dishonest people with suspect agendas. The new Jason Bourne has lightning reflexes, but no idea what to think. And the audience can surely relate.
“Most Hollywood franchises, are driven by superheroes, cartoons with special powers. They have no doubt, they’re very affirmative. But Bourne is a real guy in a real street in a real world, and he’s an Us and Them character. He’s against Them. They’re trying to fuck him up and kill him. And that’s where I felt the prize was – to help put in place a spy franchise for the 21st century, built on a set of values that people could aspire to, that would play into what’s going on out there.”
“We all know that our government, particularly the secret parts of it, have lied their arses off about the most important things. Like why we just killed tens of thousands of people. And nobody is called to account for it. So we’re all carrying this mistrust.” At this point I have to ask – is Greengrass saying that the fist-fights and car-chases of The Bourne Supremacy are happening in the same world where Iraq was invaded and Stephen Lawrence murdered?
“Maybe not exactly. But close. For the purposes of the ride, you believe it is. And it’s most certainly not an imaginary world.” In asking himself why so many people might be going to see his film – it has taken over $120 million in two weeks at the US box office he knows that they want the ride itself, the vivid, thrilling elements that supply Saturday entertainment. But he feels they’re also responding, “on some inchoate level, to a character who’s trying to work out what the fuck is going on”. For his own part, he does admit he was worried that he could somehow lose his directorial voice while making a commercial American film. Clarke never went to Hollywood. And even if he’d been invited, his own voice would have told him not to go. “I didn’t think anyone would try to fuck me up,” says Greengrass, “but you fear you might lose your way and adopt the foliage of the environment you’re in. That was a bit of an obsession for me, and the first time I saw the finished print I was so fucking stressed. But as I watched the film I thought yeah, it looks like mine. It looks like the sort of film that the bloke who made Bloody Sunday would make if he went to Hollywood and did a thriller.”
He also watched the other blockbusters, to see what he’s up against, and found the standard comparatively high. “I think the current crop of summer films has been pretty good, and a lot of that has to do with us living in interesting times. I think we’re getting back towards where we were in the 1970s, because the times are analogous. Post-Vietnam or post-Iraq, there are no easy answers, and a load of stories out there to tell.”
As satisfied as he is with the new movie, Greengrass says he “adored” making Bloody Sunday and The Murder Of Stephen Lawrence, and will make that sort of film again. After shooting The Bourne Supremacy, he wrote the script for Pete Travis’s TV drama about the Real IRA’s bombing of Omagh in 1998, which broadcast on Channel 4 in May. Even if he didn’t direct it, Omagh played like a Greengrass film, with it’s uneasy choreography of dramatic and documentary principles.
He remembers choreographing Bloody Sunday as a kind of “dance” between the different perspectives of those involved. “The interplay becomes progressively darker and more violent until it spirals out of control, and that creates a kinetic film. I think I did want the audience to be gripped by the pulse, the ticking clock, the heartbeat that there is in action.” Isn’t there a danger that action creates excitement, which in turn implants an element of guilt in the viewer? Isn’t there something painful and punishing in that tension between what the viewer knows, what the characters don’t, and what the real people portrayed could not have seen coming? Greengrass tells me that he’s conscious of this, and tries to mitigate it when he’s writing and shooting, “by pushing everything into the present tense”. “I don’t want spectacle,” he says.
“I don’t want people watching from the outside. I want them to be participants. Drama can take you there in the way that the facts can’t. So you’re a participant in Bloody Sunday, if you watch that film. You’re there at Omagh. And you’re there in the car during that chase at the end of The Bourne Supremacy, although that film serves its purpose in a slightly different way.” And what is that purpose, I ask him? “Film can give you immediacy, it can get you close to characters, and it can dignify struggle. The Murder Of Stephen Lawrence was about a middle-aged couple struggling to find out what happened. Bloody Sunday was about an essentially moderate man, Ivan Cooper, struggling in immoderate times. Omagh was a father struggling for justice. Bourne is a man with a dark past struggling toward the light. And that struggle is what people connect to.”