Drive a few miles out of Henley-on-Thames into the Oxfordshire countryside and you reach the home of Paul Greengrass, a farmhouse with an M-shaped outbuilding. Inside it are two long and airy work spaces. The first has high shelves lined with box files, dotted with awards Greengrass has won as a director. In the second space are books: hardback collections of art and photography, but mostly heavyweight non-fiction. On one wall is a framed poster for his film Bloody Sunday; next to it another for Jimi Hendrix live at the Monterey Festival.
Until the previous week the remaining walls were covered in a dense collage of notes and sketches for his latest film, Jason Bourne, a new adventure for the ex-amnesiac, ex-CIA assassin played by Matt Damon. But when we meet the movie is almost finished, bar last-minute tweaks to its visual effects in scenes of riot-torn Athens and car chases through night-time Las Vegas.
Greengrass is a burly man of 60 dressed in hoodie, jeans and round-framed glasses. His hair, whitish-silver, flows to his shoulders. In the work space with his books, his manner is cheerful, deeply untortured. Coffee comes in a Chelsea FC mug, though Greengrass is a Crystal Palace fan. Ah, he says, but as a boy in 1960s Kent, he and his best friend — “another Paul” — would catch the train to go to matches across London, “so it was never tribal”. (He and the other Paul still see each other. They end up watching YouTube clips of games they went to as kids.)
In the first rank of British directors in Hollywood, Greengrass makes action thrillers with brains, their plots inspired by real-world events. The most recent, Captain Phillips (2013), starred Tom Hanks in the true story of a US container ship hijacked by Somali pirates.
The Bourne movies, inspired by the novels of Robert Ludlum, began in 2002. The first, The Bourne Identity, a hopeful punt directed by American film-maker Doug Liman and starring Matt Damon, was successful enough to warrant a sequel two years later, The Bourne Supremacy. Though it was his first film made outside Britain, Greengrass unveiled a highly credible box-office juggernaut. Its influence rippled through countless other films, not least the latest Bond movies, whose newly hard edges have often been seen as a frantic catching-up.
In 2007, Greengrass made The Bourne Ultimatum. The numbers were giddy. The film took $442m, four times its budget. As you might expect, Greengrass and Damon have been regularly invited to return to the franchise by its studio, Universal, but both have always said they were done. (To keep the option on the Bourne character open, Universal instead made The Bourne Legacy in 2012, starring Jeremy Renner and directed by Tony Gilroy.)
With the success of Captain Phillips, Greengrass had no need for a commercial safe haven. The change of heart, he says, was down to Damon. Now 45, the actor decided he wanted to revive the character, partly in response to the ardour of its fans. He chipped away at Greengrass. “Matt said, ‘You know, we’re lucky to have an audience that likes what we do. There is such a thing as serving them.’
“So I thought, hmm. Interesting. I’d never looked at it like that. And I started wondering if there might be a way to do something good.”
“Something good” had specific requirements. The story would have to take place in the swirl of global politics, as the other Bournes had. And it would be made, like all his movies, his way: delivered on time and on budget, with creative decisions his alone.
Greengrass began writing the script at the end of 2014, picking up narrative threads from The Bourne Ultimatum and linking them to ideas about online privacy. With Damon joined by newcomers Riz Ahmed and Alicia Vikander, the shoot extended over several months in locations including Vegas, Berlin and Woolwich Arsenal station on London’s Docklands Light Railway, which stands in for an Athens station. At the end of the process, he looks relaxed. Though he self-deprecates about his weight and “old man’s bladder”, his age is worn lightly.
Among a stack of photographs is one of Greengrass and Damon on set, grinning at the camera under a spotlight sun. “Our bond is pretty tight,” Damon says.
Having admired Bloody Sunday (2002) — a scalding account of the 1972 killing of 13 civil rights marchers by British troops in Derry — Damon supported hiring Greengrass for The Bourne Supremacy despite his relative obscurity. But the actor was uneasy about the script the producers had bought from Gilroy. To him, it never felt ready. His anxiety mounted. Finally, he phoned the director to say he was quitting the film. “And Paul,” Damon says, “who I really didn’t know that well, said: ‘OK. Do you have the script there? Turn to page one.’ And he starts telling me about the movie we’re actually going to make, not the one on paper. Just between him and me.” When I ask Damon if he would make a Bourne without Greengrass, he says “No,” before I’ve finished speaking.
Greengrass has three children with his wife, the talent agent Joanna Kaye, and two more from an earlier marriage. Kids’ drawings are pinned up near the Bloody Sunday poster. Two labradors huff by his side. But the idyll wasn’t won easily. Arriving in movies from TV journalism, his visual signature is what he calls “the unknowing camera” — the viewer having to keep pace with the action, events occurring a half-second ahead of us, the unknowing camera itself often shuddering wildly. While many find the jolt and jar exhilarating, it makes others seasick. His films are well reviewed but not immune to commercial disappointment: Green Zone, the 2010 Iraq-set thriller he made with Damon, fell just short of breaking even. And among the producers who speak of him fondly, there are wry references to his dislike of schedules and need for elaborately realistic sets.
They also talk about how smart he is. It’s not just his talent as a writer, or his being well read. (Damon, who describes him as a “conversational prizefighter”, remembers a casual gift of the 736-page fourth volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson.) Mark Redhead, his producer on Bloody Sunday, had known him for years beforehand. Researching the film, the pair would sit poring over government documents. Redhead recalls starting to notice “that I was taking four times longer than him to read them. He has this phenomenal ability to chew through information.” Greengrass isn’t clever in the witticism-at-dinner sense. His intelligence is the kind that needs an outlet.
His mother Joyce was a teacher “from a long line of teachers”, and his father Philip a merchant seaman, raised in a strict Baptist household. Shortly after Paul was born, Philip took a job as a river pilot in Gravesend, Kent, “the endless estuary suburbs where nothing much happened”.
Education was prized by both parents. Though his father left school at 14, he believed in great art. Money, while tight, was found for trips to London for culture. At nine, Greengrass was taken to a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet; a year later, to Leicester Square for David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. The film was revelatory. “I still see it so vividly. The big screen. Unimaginable excitement. Unimaginable truth.”
Yet despite siblings and mates, he felt isolated. “Directing is all tied up with childhood loneliness. It’s such an odd thing to end up doing.” His time at Gravesend Grammar School was not happy. “I was a bit troubled. School made me kick up.” Finally, he was expelled. He is vague about why. “I was just a pain in the arse. But I nearly didn’t make it.”
The solution came with Sevenoaks, the then experimentally-minded private school. The headmaster Michael Hinton — “slightly remote, very decent” — listened to the teenage Greengrass hold forth. “You should probably come here,” he said. A free place was offered. It was the dawn of the 1970s. The school felt “elastic”. In his year were two future members of the post-punk group Gang of Four and film-maker Adam Curtis.
Greengrass was drawn to the art room. “It was a place of magical possibilities. But it was the utility I loved. You made things there.” He painted, took photographs and found a Super 8 camera, turning out “silly little films”. He watched films, too: French new-wave classics, the Greek political thriller Z.
Sevenoaks helped get him into Cambridge, where he read English. Film was his passion, but felt implausible as a career. He dabbled in student journalism, saw Robert Redford introduce a screening of the Watergate drama All the President’s Men. “It was an interesting moment — investigative journalists morphing into icons.”
After university, Greengrass became a trainee at Granada TV in Manchester. Still keen on football, he joined the sports department. There, he uncovered a story about the business practices of Louis Edwards, then chairman of Manchester United. He took it to the channel’s renowned current affairs title World in Action.
In the late 1970s, the programme was a fixture on prime-time ITV. Stories are told of episodes made in marijuana hazes; Margaret Thatcher called its young, cocksure journalists “Trotskyists”. In truth, they were eclectically anti-establishment. Greengrass became a researcher. “The ethos was compelling stories, told at eye level. It wasn’t that you were allowed to work independently, without interference — you were expected to.” Redhead remembers him standing out with his neat moustache and occasional suit, as if disguised as a respectable citizen.
An early film he made for World in Action was about the first IRA hunger strike. Greengrass approached the family of hunger striker Raymond McCartney. Messages found their way into the Maze prison. Finally, having badgered the Northern Ireland Office, he secured rare footage of the notorious H-Blocks, and an interview with McCartney.
His work at Granada revealed a fascination with geo-politics — apartheid, the Reagan presidency — that would later find its way into films such as Green Zone and United 93 (2006), his account of the 9/11 flight downed by its passengers to defy the hijackers. Yet his time there became an identity crisis. Journalism provided “adventures” — but the more TV he made, the more he knew he wanted to make movies.
In 1985, shooting a documentary about the Live Aid concerts, Greengrass encountered the makers of an official film commissioned by Bob Geldof. One was Tara Prem, a seasoned hand in TV drama. Greengrass takes pains to credit the key figures in his career: Prem is one, another is Ray Fitzwalter, who edited World in Action for 17 years. Yet journalism can be catty. A 2007 profile quoted an unnamed source remarking on the number of his “former friends”.
“Paul was always ambitious,” says Simon Berthon, a World in Action producer; the two worked together on the hunger strike film. “But not ‘ambitious’ the way people can say that, with a tone. He’s never been pushy. He’s just driven.”
A curveball arrived with Peter Wright, a retired MI5 technical officer exiled in Tasmania. Having met Greengrass making a World in Action, Wright asked him to co-author his memoir. Called Spycatcher, it claimed a former MI5 director-general had been a Soviet agent. The Thatcher government reacted badly, attempting to ban the book and thus making it a cause célèbre. No journalist could have wished for a higher profile.
And then he left Granada. In a Melbourne hotel en route to meet Wright, his real excitement came faxing Tara Prem a treatment for a movie he wanted to make: Resurrected, based on the true story of a Falklands war veteran. A deal was made for Greengrass to direct it, with Prem producing. He found telling colleagues embarrassing. But he was, at last, a film-maker.
In the other work space in Oxfordshire, a visual effects team led by supervisor Charlie Noble has now arrived, setting up MacBooks to review an early scene in Jason Bourne. In it, Damon slaloms a motorbike through an austerity riot, the ground strewn with bricks. Noble starts to describe the changes his team have made; Greengrass lightly scolds him for giving away secrets. “Actually, we just added this one brick,” Noble deadpans.
In the box files above us are the papers from his previous films. For United 93, Greengrass hired researcher Kate Solomon, now a producer, to spend months creating timelines of the day of the flight, the spine of a film that stripped everything to the facts. “Making a film with Paul is like doing an MA,” she says. For Jason Bourne, research focused on our use of social media and who might seek to surveil it, involving a fictional tech giant, Deep Dream.
Hindsight makes life look fated. Now, it feels obvious Greengrass would forge a stellar career from the lessons of Sevenoaks and World in Action. Then his rise was much harder to predict; he was himself behind an unknowing camera.
Resurrected opened in 1989 to polite reviews. The phone did not ring. For years afterwards he eked out a living. TV movies came and went; a stint on the Channel Islands detective show Bergerac ended after a single morning. His first marriage had broken up. There were children to support.
“Your choices are dictated by paying the bills.” For Greengrass, this wasn’t always easy. “I’d always suspected my face wouldn’t fit in drama departments. And it never did!”
He found the hierarchies of British drama thankless. He recalls a BBC TV executive belittling a script of his before then announcing he was going to send it to the celebrated writer Alan Bleasdale in case he could use it. A year on, the same executive wanted to give the next script to Michael Frayn.
Later, he emails warmer comments about the BBC (Bleasdale has already been called “blameless”): “I just don’t get on with institutions. I need simple relationships with people who believe in me.” Still, the period makes him wince. “It was a time of being . . . dicked around.”
His frustrations turned inward. He dutifully adopted the visual grammar of the small screen. In 1996, he made a TV film about the SAS, The One That Got Away. A complex multi-character scene proved impossible to execute the way he had written it. Standing beside an army jeep, he checked he was alone before “banging my head against it”. Then came The Theory of Flight. A romance between a woman with motor neurone disease and a builder of flying machines, it starred Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter. Greengrass had misgivings from the start. Wanting to quit but now married to Kaye and expecting their first child, he hoped to be paid off. He wasn’t. “It was a bad film. Absolute failure. It crushed me.”
Ten years after leaving World in Action, “skint and miserable”, he prepared another exit. He would leave film-making, start teaching, enter local politics. He imagined himself as a busy Labour councillor. “I could see the shape of a life. It felt coherent.” He pauses. “Actually, I was developing a rage.”
It was 1997. Greengrass was seeing a lot of Mark Redhead. “The films don’t look how I see them in my head,” he would say. Then they read the same piece in Granta magazine on the killing, four years earlier, of Stephen Lawrence. They agreed a film had to be made. ITV commissioned it.
Greengrass threw himself into research, working closely with the Lawrence family. But he and Redhead were aware they came to the story as two white media professionals. “The authorship had to be collective,” Redhead says. Greengrass wrote a script, but the actors — led by Marianne-Jean Baptiste as Doreen Lawrence — were encouraged to improvise, make the scenes their own. Members of the black community of Eltham, the London suburb where Lawrence died, featured in the cast.
Greengrass spent the first day on set shooting “reverses” — the conventional building block of characters in dialogue, shot at a standard angle and distance. It still felt wrong. It felt polite. Finally, he had his eureka moment: the camera would no longer be a bystander. We would see what characters saw as they saw it, however snatched or chaotic. Instantly, the film stopped feeling like TV. To Greengrass, it felt true. The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, he says, was “the first film where I thought, this is me”.
What struck Redhead wasn’t just that his friend had finally unlocked his potential, but why. “Paul very, very much wanted to make something deserving of the Lawrences.”
The method was honed on Bloody Sunday. British troops were played by ex-soldiers, the protesters mostly by locals from the tower blocks of Ballymun, Dublin, who came to watch the filming. The result has a raw, teetering quality. It aired in Britain to loud acclaim before plans for a small international cinema release saw it screen at the famed Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
With little advance notice, it became the subject of sudden and extraordinary buzz. Rumour had it Harrison Ford wanted Greengrass for his next film. Offers from Hollywood were already coming when, a fortnight later, the film shared the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. At 46, he was the hottest young director in world cinema. America had never been the plan. But since the studios were asking, “I thought, that sounds a laugh. I definitely want to know what it’s like to make a big commercial film. And I don’t mind getting paid.”
In Bourne, he saw the chance of something both spectacular and subversive, an action hero with a grudge against the politically powerful: the anti-Bond. The salary let him bring Kaye and the children with him while filming, renting a house in Malibu. “I was lavish because I was never going to do it again. I didn’t think I’d like it. Didn’t think the studio would like me. Obviously it was a one- time thing.”
Greengrass set about making a film like Bloody Sunday, but for $80m. Executives “muttered” when they saw the shaking cameras of The Bourne Supremacy, but he and Damon were co-conspirators. They shot every scene twice: conventionally, just in case, then “the real one”.
Once the film opened, his relationship with the studios was sweetened by the profits. Since then he has realised he and they fit. Unlike his experience of British TV, his Hollywood is respectful, clear-eyed, meritocratic: “Studio people are bright. Empowering. They don’t want to have to interfere creatively. That’s their horror story, too.”
Tim Bevan, co-founder of Britain’s Working Title, produced Green Zone and United 93. “What big directors get turned on by,” he says, “is brinkmanship. The money, the star, the studio. That all excites Paul, and you only get it in America.”
The sets of his multi-million-dollar films, Redhead says, are “larky”. Kate Solomon recalls watching him on Green Zone, surrounded by extras, “grooving away” to an iPod.
With previous Bournes rooted in the Bush era, the task for Greengrass this time was finding a story for multi-screen 2016. Transformed, too, is the global film market. “Now, studios have to think, what works in the US and China and Europe and Brazil? Which is, generally, superheroes.”
But problems are the kick. After talking for three hours, Greengrass is unflagging. When he said yes to Damon, he told the actor to make sure he got into shape, so the audience knew they were taking this seriously. “There’s an art to a Saturday-night movie. The competitive part of you wants to come out strutting. Something smart, right in the heart of the mainstream. I love that.”
‘Jason Bourne’ goes on UK release on July 29
Danny Leigh is an FT film critic
Photographs: Alamy; Universal Pictures