For Paul Greengrass, a Connecting Flight

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 1, 2006

Barely four years ago, Paul Greengrass was some British guy making socially conscious movies about the Irish troubles. Now he's the one -- not a Spielberg, a Cameron or a Scorsese -- who directed the first major movie to deal directly with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. And "United 93" is his vision of what happened on the ill-fated flight before it ended tragically in a desolate field near Shanksville, Pa. Did the A-listers want no part of this? (Oliver Stone, no big surprise, has his own Sept. 11 film due out in August.) And how did an Englishman get charged with retelling one of the darkest days in American history?

The man to answer all that, writer-director Greengrass, has arrived, sauntering into a Washington hotel suite. No leggy aides chirruping into cellphones. No alpha-agent guard-dogging his every word. Just a burly 50-year-old Englishman, John Lennon glasses and Jesus hair.

We're immediately struck by a weird, inappropriate thought, but here it is: This guy would have been useful up there, huddling with passenger and rugby player Mark Bingham, squaring shoulders to bust open that cockpit door. But as soon as Greengrass begins to speak, all thoughts of the physical disappear. Now it's all about the voice, softer and more reassuring than a priest's at a funeral -- those sonorous tones, that confidence. As if nothing could have been easier than making a movie about one of the country's most traumatic episodes.

"I've seen a lot of political violence in my life," says Greengrass, who spent the first 10 years of his career as a producer-reporter for "World in Action," a British investigative TV series that took him to hot spots around the world, including Lebanon, the Philippines and Northern Ireland.

"I know what it looks like, I know what it smells like, I know what motivates young men to do it. I've talked to them about it. I know what victims feel like, you know? I know the abominable effect it has on politics. I know how intractable it is.

"Does it mean I know about 9/11? No. But that's what brought me to the table," says Greengrass, who conceived of the movie project himself rather than signing on to something already in the works.

He loves America, he says, his blunt workman's fingers making gentle arcs in front of him, sometimes fingering that tousled hair. Feels very connected to it. Lives in Hollywood. Lives well, thanks to the success of "The Bourne Supremacy," which reaped $176 million for Universal. (Getting "United 93" made at Universal amounts to studio payback, Greengrass cashing in his chips.) But as to his suitability for this undertaking, he says, it boils down to the experience of two films. The first was "Bloody Sunday," a 2002 release about the killings of Irish demonstrators at the hands of British forces in 1972. The other, 2004's "Omagh," examined the aftermath of an IRA bombing that claimed 29 victims in Northern Ireland.

Both were filmed with the hand-held-camera urgency of documentaries, the signature style of this former TV journalist. No one stands out as hero or villain. Everyone is caught up in the no-exit impasse of personal politics. Families lose sons, husbands and children, sometimes wives. His films are about the disintegration of peace and happiness across entire communities. And for both productions, Greengrass reached out and secured the support of the actual families who had lost loved ones; those who felt a moral ownership of the story.

He took the same approach for "United 93," he says. He visited with the families of the slain passengers and crew. He told them he had culled the findings of the 9/11 Commission report and other sources, would listen to their personal testimonies as well as those of military and civilian personnel who monitored that awful day. He promised them he would honor and dignify their dead. And that, as with his Irish films, he'd find a softer, gentler truth.

"You can make films about these events that are not these bleak and tragic events," Greengrass says. Although he stresses the "United 93" project was "a different film about a different subject, the principle is the same. . . . Let's try and create a shared narrative of it, which doesn't duck the truth of what happened, but which doesn't seek to judge and condemn or caricature or marginalize. Let's try and draw together, see if we can't paint a picture of this event that we'll all look at afterward and go, 'It must have been something a bit like that.' "

He got the families' collective blessing, he says.

All 40? Surely, there were some holdouts?

"Every single family," Greengrass replies.

For those who question whether this film comes too soon, this weekend's box office provided some answers: "United 93" had the second-highest gross with an estimated $11.6 million and enjoyed the nation's highest per-screen average ($6,462), according to motion picture industry tracker Exhibitor Relations. (The top earner was "RV," a family comedy starring Robin Williams, which earned $16.4 million from more than twice the number of theaters showing "United 93.")

Universal Pictures "handled this just right," says Exhibitor Relations President Paul Dergarabedian, who says positive reviews, widespread media coverage and Universal's conservative booking of the film into 1,795 theaters all contributed to the healthy tally. * * *

On Sept. 11, 2001, Paul Greengrass was in post-production on "Bloody Sunday." Not long after the events of that day, the idea of a film about Flight 93 began turning over in his mind. His interest in the project grew during the next two years, but he decided to wait until the 9/11 Commission had published its findings. ("I knew [the report] would give me as clear as possible, the best account of the event. And it did. It's brilliant.")

By then, however, it was 2004 and he was busy with "Omagh," which he produced and co-wrote, and "The Bourne Supremacy," which he took on for a change of pace. When Paramount Pictures pulled the plug on "Watchmen," an adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel he was planning to direct, it was time to think about making a Flight 93 film again.

Greengrass "very strongly, urgently, wanted to make this movie," says Lloyd Levin, one of "United 93's" producers. "It was his idea. Soon after 9/11, he started gestating. . . . After the 9/11 Commission, it really crystallized for him, and in the shadow of the bombings [last July] in London, the opportunity presented itself."

Universal greenlighted the film on Greengrass's terms, he says.

"I wanted the film to be small, because I wanted all of us who worked on it to do it for a sense of duty -- not out of, you know, because it was a gig," recalls Greengrass, who says the budget for the film was between $15 million and $20 million.

It would have no recognizable stars. It would be shot in England, in part to give the actors a real sense of separation from their families. Greengrass planned to film it in real time, in the documentary style he had employed for most of his career.

The British filmmaker also received technical advice and support from the military, air traffic controllers and the Federal Aviation Administration. He even persuaded nine people to act as themselves, including Ben Sliney, head of the FAA's Herndon facility, and various Air Force officers and air traffic controllers -- all of whom had real roles on that September day.

When the actors arrived at Pinewood studios -- the scene of many a James Bond movie -- they were met with the awesome spectacle of a reconstructed Boeing 757 mounted on a platform. It could move hydraulically up and down, left and right. A separate cockpit was also up on mounts, ready to twist, turn and even spiral.

Greengrass planned to use the same hand-held-camera style he had used in "Bloody Sunday," which meant the actors would have to perform -- and remain in character -- for takes that lasted as long as 50 minutes. He wanted it to be as real as moviemaking allowed.

"We weren't told when it would occur," actor David Alan Basche, who plays passenger Todd Beamer, says of filming inside the plane. "At random, it would leap forward. It was unlike anything I've experienced. You had to hold to the seats for fear of sliding down the aisles . . . and to be in that cockpit, frantically reaching for the steering wheel and having our heads hit the instrument panels above us, and our arms flailing about hitting the windows, it was just unfathomable."

But the story of Flight 93 was about more than physical helter-skelter. Greengrass also was concerned with finer issues, such as how to convey the conflicted emotions that Greengrass believes terrorist-pilot Ziad Jarrah (played by Khalid Abdalla) went through before he commanded his men to take control of the plane; or how to realistically deliver that now-mythological Todd Beamer line: "Let's roll."

"It was important to Paul to steer clear of melodrama," says Basche, whose career to date has included appearances in TV's "Law & Order" and the movie "War of the Worlds." "To avoid a gung-ho John Wayne moment and, instead, to have that phrase come out of the reality of a terrifying situation."

They tried several variations. In the end, says Basche, the take they used "seems to come out of me in a way that was more, almost whispered and insistent and inviting action in an immediate way, as opposed to some type of solitary battle cry."

For all the movie's meticulous attention to detail, based on factual research and informed conjecture, says Greengrass, the movie is ultimately "a film version of the Rorschach test. You watch it and you project into it what you see in 9/11 and beyond. And hopefully it's got enough structure and rigidity and openness and porousness that you can project onto it what you want but also be challenged, as well, in what you think."

That said, Greengrass has his hopes for what viewers will find in that Rorschach picture.

"There were two hijacks that day," he says. The first was airplanes crashing into buildings. The second, he says, was in showing other Muslims "that they were the true believers. Prepared to strike. Willing to rouse the faithful from slumber. And it's that hijacking of Islam that is the real threat we're facing."

Although the movie ends with no epilogue except a dedication "to the memory of all those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001" (when asked whether this includes the hijackers, Greengrass says he hopes viewers don't interpret it that way), it doesn't just leave viewers in emotional disintegration on that desolate field in Shanksville. It shows those passengers were the first people to take action in the post-9/11 world. As they fought to take control of the plane, they already realized that the world they once knew was burning, and by taking a bold step into the new world, says Greengrass, they made a heroic decision.

"When I watch that film myself, I feel that . . . when they've reached the cockpit door, and they're wrestling with that guy, and it's the most brutal kind of struggle, I feel that's us today. And when they get through the door and they're wrestling for the controls of the plane with those guys, that feels like that's our tomorrow, if we're not careful."

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