UK-born Paul Greengrass, 54, worked on investigative current affairs TV shows such as World in Action and Cutting Edge before he was hired by Universal Studios to direct The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and United 93 (2006). His new film, Green Zone, inspired by Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, features Matt Damon as a US officer trying to make sense of the situation in Iraq following the 2003 invasion.
You’ve been developing Green Zone for some time. How did it come about?
In 2004, it was obvious that two events were driving our world: 9/11 and the war in Iraq. One of the reasons the Bourne films worked was because I took them closer to the real world. At one level, it’s a preposterous story about an amnesiac assassin, but it distilled that fear and paranoia and mistrust that was out there, particularly among young people. [So then] I wanted to engage with that directly. I thought it would be one film, but it turned out to be two: United 93 and Green Zone. As United 93 was the way to get to the heart of 9/11, the hunt for WMD felt like the way to get to the heart of what was happening in Iraq, to get to the reality of an event that’s been so politically overlaid. How did they get it so wrong?
Did you always want Matt Damon?
Yes, from the start. The idea was to have a character believing his cause was just and then starting to ask questions. It’s a conspiracy thriller in a genre sense and that was the way to bring a broad audience to the piece. I couldn’t see the whole picture until I read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book and I thought: Of course, he’s going to the Green Zone and will encounter these inexperienced, highly political people who proceeded to enact this folly of democracy-building with utter incompetence, vicious in-fighting and no regard for the region and its history.
So the Bourne films, United 93 and Green Zone are all connected?
They’re all films about the Bush years. The Bourne films are the popcorn version; United 93 is very spare and sober. This time I wanted to make something in between. Here was this large audience, mostly young and male, that loved Bourne – that’s the people who are being asked to fight this war and that’s the audience that most related to this paranoia and mistrust. I wanted to invite that audience to take one step back and recognise that the origin of all that is in the real world. Most people, broadly speaking, believed what they were told [about the dangers of WMD] so the Matt Damon character is us. We can have the Chilcot Enquiry [the ongoing British public inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq] and this, that and the other, but in the end we know you got us into this thing and it wasn’t wise and you trimmed and rigged and did whatever you did. And what’s going to happen next time we need people to trust us?
Films about Iraq and 9/11 haven’t generally done well in terms of box office receipts.
I’m really interested to see what happens. If Green Zone does succeed, it’ll suggest that experience is starting to be processed. That’s really what popular culture’s about – it distills what’s going on and represents it in ways that speak to a broad audience. When you watch The Dark Knight you can feel that happening. That’s why I enjoy bigger pieces. It’s easy to say all big films in Hollywood are s***, but there are certain things you can do in that beating furnace of popular culture. Engaging a large audience doesn’t mean you can’t engage with the real world or be thematically bold. It’s a matter of picking the right stories and the right characters.
Green Zone is in UAE cinemas now. See our review and trailer at timeoutdubai.com/film
The evolution of Matt Damon
He may have started out a bit of a co-dependent non-entity, but these days Matt Damon is a star proper, and likeable to boot
Chasing Amy (1997)
Despite small roles in ’80s classics such as Mystic Pizza and Field of Dreams, Damon had to rely on his mates Ben Affleck and director Kevin Smith for some proper face time in this sometimes funny but ultimately ill-formed tale of sexual confusion. And it’s still only a bit-part.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Damon finally made a splash with this Oscar-winning drama that both co-starred and was co-written by himself and bromantic partner Affleck. It may have given his career a boost, but publicly dumping co-star Minnie Driver on Oprah did little for the likeability factor.
Still struggling to make a name for himself in his own right, Damon starred with Affleck in yet another Smith-directed part-success/part-misfire in which he’s a fallen angel trying to get back into heaven. He was also one-fourth of an irritating celeb-couple quartet, dating Winona Ryder at the same time that Affleck dated Gwyneth Paltrow.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Damon took his first step towards likeability by teaming up with charisma machines George Clooney and Brad Pitt. It was also his first collaboration with Steven Soderbergh, which stood him in good stead for future projects.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
Damon tackled his first action role and changed his career forever.
The Departed (2006), The Informant! (2009), Invictus (2009)
It was favourable reviews all round as Damon branched out with a trio of challenging roles, guided by big-name directors: the bad guy in Scorsese’s ensemble cast gangster opus; an overweight, bipolar FBI snitch under Soderbergh; and a rugby captain in Eastwood’s vision of post-apartheid South Africa. And he married a bartender, Luciana Bozan Barros. One-hundred likeability points to Mr Damon!