Having started his career on revered ITV series World in Action, Paul Greengrass likes to keep up with current affairs, but, these days, it can be a struggle. While I was waiting to talk to him about Jason Bourne, his third movie with Matt Damon as the renegade CIA agent, the government changed, David Cameron popping out of Number 10 to announce he was handing over as prime minister to Theresa May.
Meeting Greengrass, I fill him in on the latest twist in the UK’s summer political thriller. “Wow!” he says. “It moves so fast. I just recorded an interview with Nick Robinson for the Today programme, to go out in a few days’ time. And we were talking, la la la. But then, when we came out of the room, it had all changed again.”
The director’s non-Bourne movies have dealt with major events: the Irish Troubles (Bloody Sunday), the Iraq War (Green Zone), 9/11 (United 93) and, in Captain Phillips (played by Tom Hanks), a US merchant navy ship being hijacked by Somali pirates.
So, have recent dramas at Westminster tempted Greengrass, who was born in Cheam in Surrey, to make “Brexit: the Movie”, with Matt Damon as Boris Johnson, or “The Chilcot Ultimatum”, with Tom Hanks as Tony Blair? “It might be a bit dry!” Greengrass laughs.
Does he, in common with critics, tend to give more significance to his fact-based films than the blockbuster Bourne movies?
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“Er, yes, a bit. Not wholly. I don’t make a Bourne movie with any less seriousness or engagement than I would make another. But they are like different types of music. A Bourne film is stadium rock, which is going to entertain people in Iowa, Berlin, Rio, London, Melbourne, Beijing. I really didn’t think I had the capability to make this kind of film. But it turned out that, with this character, I have.”
Greengrass, aged 60, co-wrote the new Bourne movie (in cinemas from Friday 29 July) in partnership with Christopher Rouse, who, unusually in cinema, is also the movie’s editor.
So, are they thinking at the scripting stage about budgets and locations?
“A Bourne film is a big movie – a summer blockbuster – but, in budgetary terms, it’s a middleweight compared to its peers such as Mission: Impossible and Bond. The last Bond had about twice the budget of Jason Bourne, but you’re punching in the same territory. So you’re mindful in the writing that you don’t have limitless resources, but it has to be a film of scale.”
Robert Ludlum, the novelist who created Jason Bourne, gave his super-agent the same initials as Ian Fleming’s 007, and there has been much speculation about whether Greengrass might ever defect to the other JB.
The director admits that he once had a discussion with Bond producer Barbara Broccoli. “I respect their franchise. But I’m a Bourne guy.”
With regard to Bond, is that a question of “never say never” or just “never”?
“I’d never make a Bond movie. Look, I’m not trying to play one off against the other. And you can’t not respect the Bond franchise for its longevity. But the truth is that, in a world that’s increasingly divided between “Us” and “Them”, Bond is always working for Them, the state. Whereas Bourne is – definitively – working for Us, the people. And everything you can do with the character – the attitude to power – stems from that difference.”
Even so, Greengrass had to be persuaded by Damon and Rouse to renew his action licence almost a decade after The Bourne Ultimatum. “Initially, I was the Eeyore of it. I was saying, ‘Why would we do another one?’ Matt said that there was an audience that was desperate for it. And I said, ‘Yeah, but they’ll be the first to complain if we make a bad one.’ But, in the end, it’s lucky to have such a keen audience and there is something to be said for trying to please them.”
What eventually convinced him was the possibilities offered by changes in the world since the previous film: smartphones had arrived and social media erupted, the global economy had crashed, and super-hackers, such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, were raiding the secrets of governments and companies. These political vibrations have been fine-tuned into a storyline that starts with anti-austerity riots in Athens and ends at a convention in Las Vegas, where spy agencies, corporations and hacking outfits compete to sign up the best young code-makers and code-breakers.
In the earlier films, Greengrass reflects, “the power relationship was very binary – Jason Bourne v the CIA. In this one, there are so many different powers in the land: social media, big business, hackers. But Bourne is always for Us against Them, wherever They are.”
Such undercurrents can’t help but unite Greengrass’s political drama-documentaries with his marquee thrillers; there’s always a sense that he is trying to show us – to borrow a phrase – the world in action.
“Yes! Correct. The great pleasure of making films is that it’s a conversation you have with yourself about how you see the world. So you suddenly find an event or a book or an article interesting. But you’re looking for the way to express it, which becomes the film. And it’s important to me that that is also there in the Bourne films – between the car chases and explosions.”
Jason Bourne will hit UK cinemas on 29 July