Paul Greengrass Talks Hollywood Anxiety, 'Difficult' Directors, Importance of Strong Guilds

Paul Greengrass Headshot - P 2013
Getty Images

Paul Greengrass Headshot - P 2013

The Oscar-nominated filmmaker delivered a personal, honest and funny David Lean Lecture at BAFTA HQ about his life as a director.

LONDON -- BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated director Paul Greengrass talked up Hollywood, why the power of the U.S. filmmaking guilds should be applauded and explained that being "arsey" is an essential element in being a director.

Delivering the David Lean Lecture on Tuesday at the British Academy's most prestigious film event and following in the footsteps of luminaries including Robert Altman, John Boorman, Oliver Stone, and Pedro Almodovar, Greengrass noted when the call came to go to Hollywood to shoot his first project there, The Bourne Supremacy in 2004, it filled him with anxiety.

Greengrass, whose prior blend of facts and dramatization in Bloody Sunday in 2002 had pushed him firmly into the spotlight as a major British directing force, had spent years honing his voice and style in filmmaking for both the small and big screen before making the move.

"Would I recognize the films I made there [in Hollywood]?" Greengrass said he had asked himself when the call came to make the first of his two Bourne franchise films.

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Greengrass said he is driven by trying to capture authenticity on screen in every film, whether it be Bourne or an account of the troubles in Ireland [Bloody Sunday] or the 9/11 hijack drama United 93.

"You know there's a lot of baloney talked about Hollywood," Greengrass said. "In my experience, Hollywood is full of smart, committed people, and those are the sorts of people filmmakers need."

Greengrass went on to say that he admires and is envious of Hollywood's continuing support of strong guilds, which give "powerful voices" to their members and look after the behind-the-camera talent, particularly directors. He contrasted that with the U.K., where there are no such sensibilities, which makes it a "cheap place for Hollywood to film," as they don't have to worry about the union rules there.

"You can't get a stage here, there are so many Hollywood films shooting," Greengrass explained. "Directors should -- and have to be -- treated as part of the creative process and with respect, as they are in America. We [in the U.K.] need to push for that."

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Greengrass pointed to the fact that the stunt man on the first episode of the reinvented Doctor Who franchise got paid more from residuals than the director of the show.

He said similar success for a show in the U.S. would have seen the director share in it and its success.

Greengrass opened the event, which played out to a packed auditorium at BAFTA's headquarters in central London by noting that to be a director "you have to be prepared to be arsey," he said, which is English slang meaning to be bad-tempered, adding that being, "singular and unutterably difficult" was a big plus to directing ambitions.

He noted that British filmmaking legend David Lean -- one of the founding fathers of the British Film Academy (as it was then known) in 1947, which was partly paid for after Lean donated half his royalties from Bridge Over the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago, and whose foundation continues to organize the annual lecture event -- was clearly "one of the arsiest directors of all time."

Said Greengrass: "He [Lean] was difficult, mercurial and unyielding. You look at his portrait [at BAFTA HQ] and just know you wouldn't f--k with him."

The director also regaled the enthusiastic audience with anecdotes and tales from his career that now spans over 35 years as a director first on TV and then movies.

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He revealed that the medical room scene at the climax of Captain Phillips came after a day spent shooting on the war ship in the captain's quarters at the other end of the huge vessel had simply not worked.

Greengrass said he had asked the medical attendant, the real life on-duty ship medical officer, if she minded them filming there.

"It'll just be like a training exercise, only it'll be Tom Hanks you'll be working on," he had deadpanned. "She went completely white, and for the first take she couldn't speak; she dried up because it was Tom." But he said Hanks has felt the crackle in the room and the second take of that scene was the one that unspooled on the big screen.

Greengrass used that as an example of when combining "professional actors" with "non-professionals" can often cause an alchemy on screen.

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The David Lean lecture aims "to educate, inform and inspire practitioners and the public by providing insight into the experiences of some of the world's best and most compelling filmmakers" according to BAFTA.

Greengrass's filmmaking resume also boasts the made-for-television title The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, Green Zone, The Bourne Ultimatum and, most recently, the Oscar-nominated Captain Phillips.

He noted that his desire to direct and make movies came from "childhood loneliness and childhood experiences of domestic conflicts," explaining that the cinema offered him an escape. He has since spent his adult life attempting to "recreate the childhood memories" of movie magic -- before ruefully noting that it was an unachievable goal for a filmmaker, as childhood experiences simply can never be recaptured.