Greengrass is currently at work on an adaptation of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City (Knopf), a nonfiction account of the misadventures of the Coalition Provisional Authority, headquartered in the Green Zone around Saddam’s former palace, in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Matt Damon, with whom he has worked on the ferocious Jason Bourne franchise, will star.
Starring Jolie and produced by Brad Pitt, A Mighty Heart is the biggest film Winterbottom has made thus far, with the highest wattage of star power. Did this bring any new pressures to bear on his style or working methods. “Not really,” he says. “It was good, y’know? I mean, this is the boring answer. But they were very helpful. Angelina and Mariane already knew each other. Mariane had asked Angelina to play her in the film. They clearly trusted each other. They seemed to be the same sort of people, in a way, with similar views of the world. And they’d all seen Road to Guantánamo and they knew about the sort of ways we make films, how we work with camera crews and so on, and they wanted that.”
Winterbottom credits Pitt and Jolie with shielding the film from nefarious Hollywood influences. “I think without Brad and Angie,” he says, “this film either wouldn’t have got made, or it would have got made on a very low budget. Or, if somebody had managed to raise the money to make it on a bigger scale, they would have been under a lot of pressure to make it more emotional, or more dramatic.”
What life is not like
Winterbottom insists that there was no premeditation behind his triptych of post-9/11 films — that after The Road to Guantánamo he was ready to go off to Italy and shoot something entirely different, and would have done so had he not been offered A Mighty Heart by Pitt’s production company, Plan B. It is precisely that try-anything, seat-of-the-pants style of working, however, that is his greatest attribute as post-9/11 filmmaker.
Moving low to the ground, fusing reportage and invention, keeping faith with the complexity of events rather than pounding them flat with some retroactively inferred meaning, he produces images of much-needed clarity. Competing narratives are explored, syntheses suggest themselves: reality, in a word, happens.
“One thing that I don’t really like in filmmaking,” he concludes, “is the conventionally well-written script: the three-act story, the character arc. So, when actors ask me where a scene is going, what their journey is or what their character is learning from it, I don’t know what to say, because, for me, that’s not what life is like. People aren’t constantly learning lessons in life, they don’t have an arc. It’s more of a string of incidents, and the thing to do is to try and represent that as honestly as possible, in some way, whatever that is.”