Paul Greengrass’s films are known for their immediacy.
The British director, who got his start in journalism, famously shoots extensively with handheld cameras, giving his work a unique, shaky feel that approximates the sense of experiencing chaotic events as they unfold.
Nominated for a directing Oscar in 2007 for his work on United 93 (about the flight that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on 9/11), Greengrass tends to specialize in telling stories about true events, in a way that places viewers in the middle of the action. (See also: Bloody Sunday and Captain Phillips.)
But he’s also a franchise filmmaker, thanks to the action movie brutalism of the Jason Bourne films. He took over the Matt Damon-led series with the second film, 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, then reached new heights with 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, which won three technical Oscars.
His take on the series wedded his flair for immediacy to the big action sequences and car chases we expect from the spy genre.
He and editor Christopher Rouse often cut between shots so rapidly that the films functioned less as straightforward narratives and more as sensory overloads. And yet in the midst of the action, Greengrass offered intriguing dissections of American foreign policy in the George W. Bush era.
Now, with Jason Bourne, Greengrass has reunited with Damon and the title character after nine years away, in an attempt to update both Bourne himself and the series’ politics for the waning years of the Obama era.
In some ways, the film revisits the greatest hits of the original trilogy, but it also boasts a few moments that hold their own alongside anything from the earlier movies. I asked Greengrass about returning to the Bourne franchise, making staring at a computer exciting, and why he ended a high-tech action film with a fistfight.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On Jason Bourne’s politics: "You’ve got to start with the fundamental mission, which is the mission to entertain"
Jason Bourne is, in part, about the global surveillance state, which means a lot of the characters spend much of the film staring at computers. What are the challenges of shooting scenes where the characters are just staring at screens?
It’s interesting you ask. It was definitely a big worry of mine.
I think the key is to make it characterful and to give it stakes. Hacking and counter-hacking, it’s dueling really, not with swords but with people. That was the quality that I wanted to get out of it, so you felt it was a contest of skill and ingenuity, and the physicality comes from the screens.
So much of the new movie — which follows Bourne’s attempts to solve mysteries surrounding his long-dead father — concerns developments in and changes to American foreign policy that’ve happened since the last Bourne film came out in 2007. What were some of the political themes you wanted to hit?
I’d say first and foremost, you’ve got to start with the fundamental mission [of making a Bourne film], which is the mission to entertain. Honestly, the thing that brought me back to the franchise was I love it, and I like making them. I’m proud of the two that I made, and people wanted another chapter in the story. It was for [co-screenwriter and editor] Chris [Rouse] and myself to see if we could figure out what that next chapter would be.
The point is it’s the story that people find in a character that people really love and find wildly entertaining. He’s always on a mission to find his identity, and people will always be there trying to stop him, so you always know there’s going to be great action and a great character.
That’s front and center. What you're trying to do is bring to life that character who’s got a divided soul: Am I a killer? Was I born a killer, or was I turned into one? That’s a great premise for a character. Every fragment he discovers along the way from film to film to film, you know he’s trying to answer that question.
Of course, that search you know is going to lead him into danger and to excitement and action, so you have to try and build the action in a way that’s hopefully original and entertaining and exciting and thrilling and gives you a great ride.
But also, of course, part of the world that Jason Bourne operates in that people love is that it’s a credible, real world. He’s not a caped crusader in a mythical world. He’s Jason Bourne in our world. That’s the conceit of the franchise, and people love that about it. You have to set it in a contemporary espionage landscape.
The two previous ones that I did, when I watched them again before I made this one, you could see that it was the landscape of the mid-2000s. Today, 10 years later, it’s a very different world. We see the world differently. It is a world dominated by cyber and digital technology and social media, and that’s the new frontier of espionage.
We try to reflect that. That gives Bourne new challenges and fuels a sense that this is a new and fresh and more important journey.
The spy genre seems like a really good one for telling political stories, but in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the more obviously entertaining elements, like action and suspense. Why do you think the genre is such a good fit for politically charged narrative?
I think where it works best is you let it speak for itself. You don’t tell people what to think. You try to present as simply and clearly as you can the real dilemmas that people face out there.
It’s how to strike a balance between our government’s need to keep us safe — and the information and the access that they need to our individuality to keep us safe — and on the other hand, our individual right to privacy, which is also a fundamental building block of democracy.
This tension is not a tension between right and wrong. It’s a tension between two rights, and that’s what makes it so very difficult for policymakers and for individual citizens. Where do you draw that line?
The answer in a Bourne film is just to reflect that. It’s not about taking sides. Bourne says in the film, "I’m not on your side." He’s just trying in that landscape to find the secret of his identity, but that is the tension in our world, and you see it of course in the case between the FBI and Apple [where the FBI asked Apple to crack an iPhone in a criminal investigation, and Apple refused]. Honorable people have different views about it.
On returning to the franchise: "You can’t cheat. He has to have remembered everything."
You’ve talked a lot about Bourne’s quest to discover and unpack his own identity, but in the first three films he really answered that question of who he was. How did you find a new way to keep that story going?
That was the heart of it. Could we do that? That was really what I was most trying to figure out. It seemed to all of us that you have to be true to the end of Ultimatum. At the end of Ultimatum, he said, "I remember. I remember everything. I’m no longer Jason Bourne."
You can’t cheat with that. He has to have remembered everything. You couldn’t build a film on the basis of, "Oh, hang on a second, there’s another little bit that I forgot." That would be cheating, and your audience would know it.
It had to be something that he remembered but he didn’t fully understand. In other words, you could look at something and think it’s one thing, but subsequently realize that something is going on that gives it quite a different look.
By the way, that’s something that we’ve had in all the films. In Ultimatum of course, the story revolves around the phone call between Bourne and Landy [played by Joan Allen] that ends Bourne Supremacy, but in Ultimatum it takes on quite a different meaning. We wanted to develop that idea that something he had remembered had quite a different meaning as he was propelled through the story.
We also had to ask ourselves, what would Bourne have done these past 10 years? Well, it was pretty clear to us he wouldn’t settle down with a wife and kids and run a farm. He would have to have been in the shadows, haunted and hunted by the guilt for what he had done. That’s the bare-knuckle boxing [he’s engaging in as the film begins].
It also brought us to a much more important character moment, which is to understand that if he spent 10 years doing that, there must come a point when he’d reached a tipping point where he couldn’t go on, and then what would he do? That’s the journey he goes on. He’s gotten to the end of his life as an outlaw.
He’s out in the cold. He can’t hack it anymore. He’s got to come in. Of course, it unlocks the real dilemma, which is that you can’t come in if the system that you're trying to come into is itself corrupt.
Jason Bourne is almost as much the story of Heather Lee, played by Alicia Vikander, as it is the story of Jason Bourne. What made her character a good fit for this universe, and how did you create her?
We felt we needed some new characters to keep the franchise alive. We also felt as we looked at the espionage landscape that what they call the fourth dimension — beyond land, sea, and air — is cyber, and it is the dominant new dimension of the espionage and military arena.
The people who practice in that arena are very, very young. The people that the CIA and the NSA recruit are very young, like Heather Lee.
That unlocked all sorts of possibilities, because she would not have been party to any of this old story with Jason Bourne, the story of Identity through to Ultimatum. That felt good to us because it unlocked all sorts of possibilities for the story.
Alicia, I think she’s a really superb actor. I really love what she did in Ex Machina and Danish Girl and all that. I like to think that the Bourne franchise has really, really good, very truthful actors in it. It’s that mixture of high-octane energy but also very truthful
She is an actor of rare quality mixed with great courage, and [she’s] very trusting, and that’s a great, empowering quality in the creative process.
Matt is a very trusting actor. You can do things when you trust each other. "How about if we do this?" "I don't know. I don’t think that’s a good idea." You get into those debates. That’s the creative process, when you're exchanging ideas and everybody is in a place where they’re comfortable to put in their ideas and exchange them. You get to a good place.
She’s the real deal, Alicia. She’s going to have a huge, huge career. I suspect we’re going to see her in more Bourne movies. I hope so.
On the climactic action sequence: "It is a car chase, but really, it’s a fight"
The final fistfight between Bourne and his opponent is filmed in such a distinctive, visceral way, cutting almost between point-of-view shots as the two throw punches at each other. How did you construct that sequence?
It helps if you have the best editor in the world, Christopher Rouse. Really and truly, he is a maestro and a mighty contributor to this franchise and all the films that he and I have made together. He has a superb, authorial gift, a storytelling gift, deployed alongside supreme technical ability to marshal material and cut with great accuracy.
Now, how do you mount a fight like that? You’ve got to go right back to the very beginning. You only get a good confrontation if you set up the characters carefully and in a way where your audience knows and wants them to have it out. You can’t get a good fight if the audience isn’t invested in both of them.
That starts at the very beginning, and you then get to tell the story with the two of them as they get closer and closer. Until finally, when they do fight, it’s at the other side of that enormous car chase [through the streets of Las Vegas]. You’ve actually got a fight that goes on from a very long way back.
The truth about car chases is it is a car chase, but really, it’s a fight, if you look at it in that way. By the time they actually reach each other face to face, you strip it back and strip it back so that you want it to happen and you want physicality. You want it to be in that form.
That fight wouldn’t work in the same way if they both picked up guns or both picked up spears. You want it to finally be man to man, where they exhibit their moves, but the moves are set in ... a dirty sewer underneath the glamour of Las Vegas.
It’s brutal and dramatic and highly detailed and hopefully highly characterful. At the end of it, what’s at stake between these characters is which of them is the true patriot and which of them is the traitor? That’s the issue between them.
Do you think it’s necessary to take away those technological trappings you’ve mentioned, in order to make these movies more visceral?
That’s what we wanted.
There comes a point where it’s all irrelevant, and what counts is the purest form of conflict. You drive through the so-called real world, and then there’s a certain Bourne world that takes on the modern espionage landscape.
You want to drive beyond that, and that’s what the car chase does. It physically takes you out of that landscape into an elemental landscape where men face off against men. It’s brutal and simple, and that’s what it comes down to. You’ve left the other stuff behind.
Jason Bourne is playing in theaters across the country.