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August 2014
Issue: August 1, 2007

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: PAUL GREENGRASS - 'BOURNE ULTIMATUM'

By: Iain Blair

HOLLYWOOD — After a long, distinguished career in documentaries that culminated in the award-winning documentary-style feature Bloody Sunday about the 1972 civil rights march in Northern Ireland, director Paul Greengrass brought his considerable gifts to Hollywood — and much like the character Jason Bourne, he hasn’t stopped running since. First, he directed the international hit The Bourne Supremacy, which critically and commercially out-gunned its successful predecessor The Bourne Identity, then he won an Oscar nomination for the harrowing real-life 9/11 drama United 93. Now he returns to the blockbuster Bourne series with The Bourne Ultimatum, which once again stars Matt Damon as the CIA-trained assassin with a memory problem. Here, in an exclusive interview, Greengrass, whose credits include Omagh, The Fix and The Theory of Flight, talks about making the new Bourne film and his love of post and visual effects.

POST: What were the biggest challenges in making this film?

PAUL GREENGRASS: “It sounds obvious, but it’s got to be a Bourne film, and I think it’s very easy when you get to the third in a trilogy to start to break the rules of the franchise, as it’s harder to be original. So you either become shallow and thin or you start to veer in new directions — a new character pops up to drive it, or your hero suddenly exhibits a new characteristic that was never there before. So you need great self-discipline to all agree to stay with the rules, because it makes the answers ultimately right, but incredibly harder to reach.

“Then we shot all over the world — London, Paris, Moscow, Tangier, Madrid, New York, and we had a lot of coverage to edit and post. I don’t do a lot of takes — and I like to try different things all the time — but I do tend to shoot a lot, and all that makes post very important for me. And all that time I’m talking with the editor, which in turn influences what I shoot, and vice versa. As a director I’m not very interested in rushes — it’s just the way my mind works. I know exactly what I’ve shot. But I’m very obsessive and attentive about watching footage the minute it’s cut, and that feeds back into the shooting process. For me, the old saying, ‘You make a film three times,’ is not only very true, but I also see all aspects as totally symbiotic — you write as you shoot as you cut, as you shoot and cut and write, and so on. You’re evolving the film; it’s an organic process.”

POST: Where did you post?

GREENGRASS: “We began in London, as I did a lot of shooting at Pinewood, and we had a cutting room at Ladbroke Grove, then moved to LA to Lantana Studios. I finished post on Bourne Supremacy here, too, and it worked so well for the film, as everyone was in the same town — the studio, me, producers and so on — and it’s important when you’re posting a big franchise film like that. People have a big misconception about franchise films, and the truth is it’s a team game. It’s not an auteur’s game, even though the director is a key element. But the money involved is so big and the commercial success is so important that you have to move forward as a group. It’s more like cabinet government [laughs], and post was also very short, because of the release date [of August 3].”

POST:You used your United 93 editor Chris Rouse, who cut The Bourne Supremacy and who was an additional editor on Identity. How does that relationship work?

GREENGRASS: “You find you make creative relationships in this business, and they just happen. I think tempo is a key part of filmmaking, and it’s a rhythm you have inside; Chris and I share the same tempo. He’s such a laid-back guy, and so am I, but we have the same approach to film tempo. We also share a total obsession with clarity and economic storytelling. Anyone can wave a camera around and cut fast. The question is, can you do it, have prefect clarity, vary your pace and stay in control?

“I believe there’s a magical creative place where structure meets freedom, where anarchy meets order in filmmaking, and that’s where I like to put my films, because they feel most real there. The truth is, reality is messy and unformed anarchy — it just happens. Yet a story has to unfold with clarity, characters have to be delineated. And Chris is my closest collaborator as he understands all that, and he can execute that clarity with the pace I love. He’s also an artist of post. He’s not just an editor, he’s a brilliant sound designer.” [See page 20 for an interview with Chris Rouse.]

POST: Do you like the post process?

GREENGRASS: “I like it a lot. It was a bit crazy on this because of the short schedule. Basically when I stopped shooting we spent a few weeks in London looking at material and the shape of an assembly and discussing what else we needed. Then I went off and got those missing pieces and we moved the edit to LA.”

POST: There are some amazing visual effects shots, especially in the big Tangier rooftop chase sequence. How many total and how did you go about dealing with them?

GREENGRASS: “There are a few hundred, but a lot of them are small tweaks, wire removal and so on. They’re all done by Double Negative in London.”

POST: Talk about working with visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang.

GREENGRASS: “He’s another amazing talent. I used him on 93, and he truly does what I think a lot of those VFX guys can’t — he keeps it absolutely minimal and invisible. I loved what he did on 93, which was spare, minimal and real. I was going to make Watchman, for Paramount right before 93, — but it fell apart — and I spent four months developing it. One reason I wanted to do it was to explore visual effects in a very profound way, and that’s when I met Peter. And I told him, I want a visual effects tool that will allow me to shoot in the way I shoot, without having the usual lock-down cameras and so on. It’s got to work with my vernacular, with a lot of zooms and frame changes, a lot of corrections — and that’s a hell of a challenge for any VFX supervisor. The reason he’s such a close collaborator is because he’s essentially developed this proprietary tool box that lets me do stuff seamlessly. And on this there aren’t any big digital constructions — you’re not in a digital universe. Instead, there are some greenscreen shots, backgrounds and cable stuff, and it all looks real.”        

POST: Do you like working with visual effects?

GREENGRASS: “Love it. I’m very involved, and Peter was on the set a lot.”

POST: Did you do a DI?

GREENGRASS: “Yes, here at Technicolor. It was me, Oliver [Wood, DP], Chris [Rouse] and colorist Stephen Nakamura. A lot rested on Oliver, who’s very active in the DI. It’s a fantastic tool as you can not only vary a frame but vary within a frame and pinch a small area, and we did a ton of that. And it’s particularly important on a film like this where you’ve shot for nine months off and on, in all weathers, very different locations, seasons. We began in New York with four-feet of snow, and by the time we finished there, with re-shoots and so on, it was months later and summer. And somehow you have to correct all that, and it was a nightmare in the old days. Now you can go in and really work it so it’s seamless, thanks to the digital world.”

POST: Speaking of digital, what’s your view of digital cinema? Is film dead?

GREENGRASS: “No, definitely not... not in my eyes. I might do an HD film at some point, but I’d probably be one of the last to do it. I always remember when I was 21 and I got my first job at Granada TV in Britain and the guy who trained the directors there taught me right away to literally get a feel for film. He told me to put my hands in the trim bin, and I was very uncertain and delicate about touching the film, and he was like, ‘No, no, no! It’s just film. That’s what you’ll be working with. Don’t be frightened of it!’ And I never forgot that — loving the actual feel of film. Of course, now I love what you can do in post and with visual effects, but I still love film.”

POST: How important is music and audio for you?

GREENGRASS: “Probably half the film. The first film I did where I really worked at sound was Bloody Sunday because I wanted a bigger scale, and that’s where I started down that road of layering up reality and making it feel like you’re in this unfolding 360-degree sound universe. Supremacy was like a steep learning curve for me.

“It’s an opportunity, too, the chance to really go for it and do a big Hollywood film with a decent sound budget, and Chris taught me so much too. As I said, post on this film was crazy. We were literally still shooting, cutting, composing, recording and mixing — all at the same time, up until just a few weeks ago. I only signed off on the last reel, six, after a day’s last-minute tweaks on Thursday [July 19] night at 9pm — and the film comes out August 3!”

POST: Did you make the film you first envisioned?

GREENGRASS: “I did. It turned out really well. It’s funny. My whole background is in documentaries with no budgets [laughs], and now I feel totally at home here making these huge films. I’m very lucky. I get to make a film like United 93 exactly the way I want to make it, and then I get to play in the big fairground with a film like this, and then I’ll go off and do a smaller art film next.

“One of things I most wanted out of this film is — and I believe this with a great passion — to show it’s possible to make really good films in the mainstream, including in the franchise mainstream. I also believe it’s possible to make strong contemporary films, and for me, that’s what The Bourne Ultimatum is about. You can make it aggressively contemporary and have something to say, but still make it the best ride of the fun fair. Maybe I’m a bit wide-eyed as I haven’t been in Hollywood that long, but I really believe that.”