Fall 2018 Director's Profile: Paul Greengrass
Paul Greengrass (l) on location for "22 July" (photo by Erik Aavatsmark/courtesy of Netflix)
Sparking hope with "22 July"; mobilizing a generation via Netflix

For Paul Greengrass—a Best Director Oscar nominee for United 93 in 2007—the chance to have his 22 July find an audience in theaters and on the Netflix platform right out of the gate represents a best-of-both-worlds scenario. But it’s the state of our world—reflected in his latest film—that makes Netflix particularly appealing to him due to the young demographic it attracts.

Noting that young viewers might be more likely to give 22 July a look-see on Netflix—with the theater option also available—Greengrass explained. “What this film deals with are issues that the young generation will have to take seriously. They will be on the frontline of this fight for the future of our society. Young people are our future and so this film gaining exposure among them figured heavily into my decision to team with Netflix.”

Based on the book “One of Us: The Story of an Attack in Norway—and its Aftermath” by Asne Seierstad, 22 July tells the true story of Norway’s deadliest terrorist attack and the events that followed. On July 22, 2011, 77 people were killed when a far-right extremist, Anders Behring Breivik (played by Anders Danielsen Lie), detonated a car bomb in Oslo before traveling to the island of Utoya to carry out a mass shooting less than a couple of hours later at a leadership camp for teens. 

22 July focuses in particular on one survivor’s arduous physical and emotional journey to recovery—and in doing so portrays the country’s path to healing and reconciliation. That protagonist survivor, Viljar Hanssen, is portrayed by Jonas Strand Gravli.

“The way our society was going is what drew me to this story to begin with,” explained Greengrass. “I started this before Brexit, before Trump. You could already see what was happening in Eastern Europe with the rise of the far right. In the last 12 months, the crisis has become much more dramatic. The far right rhetoric that motivated Breivik needs to be combated. His testimony in court was incredibly chilling. Our parents and grandparents understood that the democratic way of life had to be fought for—battling fascism, later on the battle of ideas in the Cold War. Democracy and its values are under attack in many different ways—and they’re being incubated within far right rhetoric and violence.”

Asked if telling a story in which Breivik espouses his beliefs somehow legitimizes him, Greengrass observed, “The danger is not in legitimizing him. The danger is in not opening your eyes to him and what’s happening around us, the struggle for democracy. And the story of Norway’s struggle for her democracy in the aftermath of the terrorist attack is what’s inspiring.”

It’s a story that had to be told, continued Greengrass, in a measured way, with restraint and dignity so that “it had the capacity to inspire an audience with the best side of humanity in response to adversity, rather than merely acquaint them with the worst that mankind can do.”

Narrative collaborators
Various collaborators helped Greengrass immeasurably in properly telling that story, including author Seierstad and editor William Goldenberg, ACE. Greengrass credited Seierstad with writing the most comprehensive account of the July 22 attacks and developing close, caring and trusting relationships with the affected families. 

The director, who also wrote the adapted screenplay, described working with Seierstad as “a privilege,” noting that she provided invaluable guidance throughout the making of the film. 

Also integral to the narrative was Goldenberg, a five-time Best Editing Oscar nominee who won in 2013 for Argo. His other four nods were for The Insider (with Paul Rubell and David Rosenbloom), Seabiscuit, Zero Dark Thirty (with Dylan Tichenor) and The Imitation Game. 22 July marked Greengrass’ first collaboration with Goldenberg. 

The director said of the famed editor, “I always wanted to work with him. He helped me find the film and sharpened it. Billy Goldenberg is one of the greatest editors in the world, and thanks to his skill and judgement I think we were able to synthesize the material in a way that was respectful, truthful and compassionate. Setting aside the seriousness of the subject matter, we wanted to make a film that didn’t push too hard. We wanted a quieter, sparser film. He was able to masterfully deliver that.”

Similarly another first-time collaborator, cinematographer Pal Ulvik Rokseth, helped Greengrass deliver what he described as “a spare beauty....He operates as well and his work gave the film this sort of haunted simplicity. He has a great eye and brought an incredible intimacy to scenes, including the one in which the attorney (Geir Lippestad portrayed by Jon Oigarden) defending Breivik goes to see his client’s mother—and through her we see the nature of her relationship with her son.”

Rokseth and production designer Liv Ask were part of a Norwegian crew on 22 July, which also featured an all Norwegian cast. 

“I always intended to make the film with a Norwegian cast and crew, and to shoot it in Norway,” said Greengrass. “This film had to have a Norwegian soul, a Norwegian identity. I wanted Norwegian artists and performers to tell Norway’s story to the world.”

Greengrass worked with Norwegian casting director Ellen Michelsen, stressing to her the profound importance of connecting solely with Norwegian performers--and specifically actors who live and work in Norway. 

Michelsen introduced Greengrass to a wide range of talented actors who fit the bill. Many of them were theatre actors "The process was incredibly straightforward. We soon found the people we needed, and I came away with huge respect for Norway's acting and film community," assessed Greengrass.

The sense of authenticity in Greengrass’ narrative filmmaking can in part be attributed to his firmly planted documentary roots. He spent the first decade of his career covering global conflict for the U.K.’s ITV current affairs program World in Action, and writing and directing assorted documentaries. 

Greengrass then had a long and distinguished run in British television, penning and directing TV films centered on social and political issues. And he successfully diversified into features with a filmography that ranges from Bloody Sunday to Green Zone, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93 and Captain Phillips. 

The latter garnered Greengrass a DGA Award nomination in 2014. And United 93 not only earned him the aforementioned Best Director Oscar nod but also BAFTA’s David Lean Award for Direction and Best Director Awards from the London Film Critics’ Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics.

Greengrass said among his prime takeaways from his experience on 22 July was “the liberation and renewal” he felt “working with new people." Greengrass said he was impressed with the quality and depth of the technical and creative talent he experienced in Norway.

The major takeaway from the story, added Greengrass, is that “the film shows us where we are right now. It’s a very worrisome, troubling place but what I come away with ultimately is what Lippestad, the lawyer for Breivik—who felt obliged to defend him even though he opposed him morally—told him during their final meeting after the trial was over. When Breivik said that others will follow him, Lippestad responded that the next generations will be up to the challenge. He said, ‘My children will beat you and then their children will beat you.’”

In the end, the struggle against hate, intolerance and violence, affirmed Greengrass, is centered on the dignity, decency and commitment of people to help each other. “That’s what the fight needs to be—one of optimism, hope, family, friends and love.”

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