Talking Pictures: United 93?s Paul Greengrass

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05/10/2006 12:00 AM |

If you have seen Paul Greengrass’s docu-fiction Bloody Sunday — which captures that fateful day in Derry, Northern Ireland when 13 unarmed protestors were gunned down by British troops during “The Troubles” — you would know that the producers did the right thing putting this controversial film in the hands of a man who knows the fine balance between drama and sensationalism.

The L Magazine: How did you feel making the first major studio project about that day?
Paul Greengrass: The stakes were high. It’s an important subject. It affects many people’s lives. There’s a responsibility to be mature and not cause offense but to tell the truth as you see it. We made some decisions on what kind of a film would stand the best chance for fulfilling that criteria. This was a small film. It wasn’t a big blockbuster filled with movie stars. You have to look at the stakes before you start and you have to be clear about what you want to do, what you want to say.

The L:
What did you want to say then?
PG: Well, that it seems to me that in my country and yours, we’re not agreeing about what’s happened since 9/11. But I wanted to reach back to the common ground, and the common ground is whatever it is that happened that morning. I think we all agree with that so let’s go back and look at it.

The L: There are the recent cockpit flight recordings that were released, but how did you gather all the information this film was based on?
PG: We subsequently got the military recordings and we were pretty close, you know? You need, from my view, to gather together people who can help you, who are willing to recreate that from a position of expertise. You gather together a group of actors, the families, real pilots, real stewardesses, real military, from that day, real air traffic controllers, various people; and you have a conversation. Would you really have picked up a trolley and run it from the back of the plane? The mythology is I believe, that the passengers ran the trolley from the back of the plane. Well, when you sit in a real airplane with real stewardesses, they will tell you that that could not have happened because they have a hard enough time walking the trolley up and down the aisle; secondly you’re sitting there, 40 feet or less from a person with a bomb… would you really advance on a person from behind a trolley? Or would you choose your biggest fastest person and run because speed would be of the essence.

The L: How important was it for the actors playing the American passengers to meet with the families? Did you encourage that?
PG: Before filming, it was up to the families. Did they want to be contacted or would they rather not. And most of them pretty much, wanted to be. Most of the actors did one way or another. Subsequently to that, I don’t think any of them met at that point, but I think some of them had. It was an amazing couple of days when they watched that film.

The L: No one knows what happened prior to boarding the plane. In the film; you show one of the terrorists making a phone call and saying “I love you” — why did you decide to humanize them?
PG: I don’t think that you can watch this film and not think that the film judges them for their most appalling acts. The question is, does it make it easier for us if we think that they are not human? Because I think it does and I think that we need to confront the fact that this danger remains. There are a lot of young men who flock to that banner. Who are hijacking Islam and perverting it. And the one thing that we can know about this day without a shadow of a doubt is that there was nothing exceptional about those young men either. Nobody noticed them. Nobody sitting next to them said, you’re not human. They looked like us. They looked unexceptional and with respect to the particular scene of “I love you;” well, number one, that’s what he did. And number two, I wanted the film to be framed by two “I love you” calls. Burnett Jr. sits down next to him and makes a phone call. Burnett Jr. makes a hum drum business call, completely unaware of anything abnormal. And the man sitting next to him says “I love you” because he’s about to go off and commit mass murder. An hour and 40 minutes later, Burnett Jr. picks up the phone, calls his wife and says “I love you.” I wanted it to be symmetry.