The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of News of the World
Can you tell us about the origins of this film?
Paul Greengrass: I think the origins of it lie in the last film I made, actually, 22 July, which was a pretty tough film about violent right-wing extremism in Europe. And I think it applied pretty much to most places, and it was rooted in the difficulties of our world today. But I did feel at the end of it that I wanted to explore more of the healing road, you know? That one was the story of a family and a young man that had been caught up in an attack, so necessarily there was a limit to how much you could answer the question, “how do we get out of this mess?” It was a true story, after all. And I find with films, if you ask yourself the right question, generally they come along. So then I was sent the novel, and I read the novel, and I thought, well this is it: this strange, beautiful story, set in the aftermath of the civil war about this lonely news reader who wanders from town to town with the healing power of storytelling… and he meets this mysterious young girl and they go on an odyssey through Texas to take her to her surviving family… They’re trying to find the road out of their divided world, as I think most of us today would like to find for our world. So that’s really where it started; I read the novel, and I thought, “that’s it.”
You’ve got to be in a place where you are taken out of yourself and challenged
The depiction of the Kiowa tribe was fascinating. It came across as authentic, rich, and detailed. How did you work with the tribe?
PG: That was the first real piece of work that we did when we started on the film, was to reach out to the Kiowa tribe and to talk to them, and ask their opinion of the novel (which they liked). We asked them to help us make the film, and we asked them what was important to them. That was crucial to us. What was most important to them, as they expressed many times, was the language: the film should reflect the beauty of the Kiowa language, and the fact that it’s alive, and that it’s spoken. And, secondly, that people from the Kiowa tribe should portray the Kiowa. That was very very important to them. And we followed their advice and we had some wonderful, wonderful times. They came to visit, and they stayed on the set, and of course Helena worked with them — particularly with Dorothy, who is an elder of the tribe, and a language expert — and she really took Helena under her wing, didn’t she?
Helena Zengel: She really did. She’s a great person. She’s over 90 years old! She really taught me a lot. And it was interesting to hear her version of the whole… mess, I’d say, when the white people took their land, and then what her people went through. Because, I mean, she was there. So it was interesting to hear that. And then also to really learn — not only parts of the language — but also to learn the culture, to learn their way of thinking, the importance of the circle… and also their way of living. Because they think and move differently than we do. Because we think in a straight line, and we’re very orderly, very oriented around money… and they’re, like, so free with things, compared to us. So it was very cool to hear her version of history, and to be able to talk to her because she knows a lot.
What was the most surprising thing for you, Helena, coming to the States to work on this film?
HZ: Well, first of all, that I’d really find a snake! I didn’t think— I mean, I knew there were going to be snakes, but to actually find one myself… I didn’t think that would happen. And then also it is so great in New Mexico. I’d never been to New Mexico, and it was so great to have America mixed with Mexico, kind of, because even though we were in America, everything was very… spicy! But there was also all of the typical American stuff, like fast food. I always only saw cowboys in movies, so I thought, “well, they won’t really be like that,” and then after the first day with the cowboys, I was just like, “mom… they are real! They’re not just in movies!” It’s true, they’re real. They’re like, “howdy ma’am!” Which made me so excited. That was very funny, to see that.
PG: There was one time, I don’t know if you remember this Helena, but one time you were sitting on the wagon with Tom — who by the way was just fantastic with you, looked after you so beautifully and was so generous — but one time you were sitting on the wagon while we were setting a shot up, and your microphone was live and you were chatting away with Tom, and I heard you say in a whisper, “Tom… does everybody curse all the time on an American film sets?!” And that was with us all being careful around her, too!
Paul, you spoke earlier about wanting to work in a different way than in your previous films when you started this project. As an experienced director, who are you able to depend on for advice and feedback when you’re moving into newer territory?
PG: Well, I think the answer is, I think filmmaking is a little bit like making music, you know? And when you work with new musicians, your music changes by its nature, because you’re working with different musicians who do different things that aren’t so predictable. So the honest answer is that it’s less about who you rely on, and more about who you choose to collaborate with, who come to you in a new way, you know? And that’s really, I think, the key to longevity in this business. You have to try to stretch yourself, you have to say, “well, I’m going to do a different sort of film where I’m out of my comfort zone,” so that’s the first thing you have to do. And then, maybe you have to make those choices to work with new people. Which takes you, again, out of your comfort zone. Because inevitably, you get that wonderful camaraderie you find with people that you’ve made with movies with over a long period of time. But with that, maybe you get to be a bit safe in your choices, because you rely on them so much. And, you know, the first movie I ever made in Hollywood The Bourne Supremacy, I remember deciding before I went that I was going to come on my own. I wasn’t going to bring anybody I’d made Bloody Sunday with, or those earlier films, because I knew it was going to be good for me, personally, to be out of my comfort zone with people who would… who would judge you. That’s the truth of it. You’ve got to be in a place where you are taken out of yourself and challenged. And that’s what Dariusz [Wolski] did for me, and other people too. And it’s wonderful– it makes you feel alive.