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PopEntertainment.com > Oscar Nominees > Feature Interviews - Directors > Feature Interviews F to J > Paul Greengrass

 

Paul Greengrass

The Director Flies UNITED 93

by Brad Balfour

Copyright 2007 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 17, 2007.

If you have seen director Paul Greengrass's earlier docu-fiction feature, Bloody Sunday which captures that fateful day in Derry, Northern Ireland, when thirteen unarmed protestors were gunned down by British troops sparking "The Troubles" there you would know that he can handle this assignment.

So despite all the trepidation about making a film about 9/11, the producers did the right thing putting of this most controversial film in the hands of a man who knows the fine balanace between drama and sensationalism. Loaded up with generally unknown actors to add to the authenticity, military air traffic controllers, real FAA air traffic controllers and actual United flight crews were used in some scenes. The film was shot with basic portable cameras rather than expensive pro version for the immediacy. Families of the 40 passengers and crew members killed on Flight 93 cooperated in the production, offering Greengrass detailed background about their loved ones. The actors who played the terrorist hijackers and the passengers and crew on the flight were kept separated so that the director could capture the fear and hostility; once they had the background of their characters in mind they improvised a good part of their scenes.

So it was most fitting that this first serious feature film would open the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival five years after 9/11. The filmmakers donated a percentage of the opening weekend proceeds to the Flight 93 memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Even though Oliver Stone's
World Trade Center was the higher-profile film with more established actors, United 93 garnered Greengrass and the film a Best Directing and Best Editing Oscar nom this year.

How did you feel making the first major studio project about that day?

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.

What did you want to say then?

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 lets go back and look at it. Let's try and examine in detail, and see what it can tell us about what happened and where we've come from. And I think, I hope, that it does that. There will be many other films to be made about this subject, believe me, but I thought that that was a responsible and a reasonable place to start.

There are the recent cockpit flight recordings that were released, okay, but how did you gather all the information this film was based on?

We subsequently got some tapes from N.E.A.D.S, the military recordings and we were pretty close, you know? When I made this film, bear in mind, I spent a good deal of my career making films about these kinds of subjects. A lot in Northern Ireland, but not just Northern Ireland, but in the Middle East and elsewhere, not everything I've ever made has been on the subject of terrorism, but I've returned to it numerous times and I suppose over the years that there is a place for films that tell you what happened.

Now, you have to gather your material as comprehensively and as reasonably as you can within a period of time that you've got to make the film. 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 can't just do it with actors, although actors are
important.

You need to get the cross fertilization between actor and professional people, so that you gather together in a place for a couple of months, and together you say let's try to explore a believable truth based on what we can know. 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. You don't all agree with each other on the contrary, you try and synthesize this thing.

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. Forgive thoughts of judgment on an attempt to time to create something that feels truthful.

Is it more of a dramatic recreation?

No. You take all the available facts as you can know them at that moment in time and you synthesize those first and then you work those out in conjunction with the expertise that as a group you have and you come up with something that is a believable truth. You start with the 9/11 commissions and all the declassifications of the 9/11 commissions including a 120 page document about flight 93. You start with a whole mass of information which you make sense of in a written document before you ever begin and that's what you work with.

What were your thoughts about the "too soon" debate?

In the too soon debate, you don't know until people see it. The families have seen it and the families have been incredibly supportive.

How important was it for the actors playing the American passengers to meet with the families? Did you encourage that?

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.

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?

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, Youre 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 to 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.

How meaningful was it to be opening at the Tribeca Film Festival?

Incredibly important. Honored because it's New York, and anxious because it's New York. And humbled because it's New York. I was literally a boy, I was 18, when I first came to this city. I spent most of that year here. Without any exaggeration I became a man in this city.

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Copyright 2007 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 17, 2007.

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Copyright 2007 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 17, 2007.