Directors who have reached a certain stature always find a way to add a Western to their resume. Or, at least a Western of some ilk. Clint Eastwood (“Unforgiven”), Quentin Tarantino (“Django Unchained”), the Coen Brothers (“True Grit,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) and, now, Paul Greengrass.
Reuniting with his “Captain Phillips” star, Tom Hanks, Greengrass has gone down a markedly different road with “News of the World.” Set in the 1870s, the film centers on a newsreader (Hanks) who is given the mission of returning a young girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), back to her relatives after she was taken by the Kiowa people years before. Along the way, they encounter all sorts of hostile forces that permeate the Wild Wild West.
Greengrass jumped on the phone earlier this month to discuss why the film’s story spoke to him, the relative ease in casting Johanna (it shouldn’t have been easy), and the fun in filming an old fashioned shoot out.
The Playlist: Have you just been waiting for the right Western to fall into your lap?
Paul Greengrass: I wouldn’t say I was waiting for the right Western. I mean, it’s true, I grew up with Westerns, I loved them when I was a boy. And then later you’re a student. You’re growing up, and you study John Ford and [John] Sturges, and all those guys. But, I never thought I would get to make one. What I did think was, “I would like to make a film, that explored getting to a better place.” Because it does feel like our world is very dark and bitterly divided at the moment. Wherever you are, whether you’re in your country or my country, or anywhere else for that matter. Because I’ve got kids and you want the world to be good for them. So that was in my mind really. And then a novel came along, and I read it and I thought, “Well, here’s this story about the newsreader, and he’s moving from town to town, and he’s lonely, but…the healing kind of storytelling, he’s kind of weaving a thread that connects broken community to broken community, and he’s got nothing, but that’s all he can do, and that’s what he does.” And then he meets a mysterious girl, and they go on a journey of healing. And I thought, “Well, it’s 1870, it’s the shadow of the Civil War, it’s America bitterly divided trying to heal, that’s today, isn’t it?” And that was really the start of the process for me.
When you read Paulette Jiles’ novel was a movie already in the works?
Oh yeah. Tom was already attached, you know? So, when they asked me it was like a dream come true, to be honest, it was a Western, it was a chance to team up with Tom. And as I say, it was a chance to make a film about the road to healing. And also from my point of view, a chance to make a more classical looking film, a different film, break new ground, because you can’t always do the same things. You’ve got to challenge yourself and do different things.
Your aesthetic is decidedly different in this picture, although I thought with “22 July,” you also changed direction from some of your previous films.
Yes, I did. I did. Yeah.
For this one in particular, were there any specific influences that shaped how you wanted the movie to look?
Well, in the end, it’s set in 1870, and people moved slower and there aren’t any cars. It’s got a certain pace. But yes, I mean, obviously, John Ford… A few years ago, I was one of the people involved in that Netflix documentary series “Five Came Back.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with that?
Five directors who went to war, but came back changed. I chose to do John Ford. So he was a lot in my mind. We watched all his films and talked a lot about him. And then when I read this novel, it struck me that really, it was “The Searchers” in reverse. It wasn’t the man going out to find the girl, it was the man bringing the girl home. And that made it feel, also, rather contemporary, and different. But obviously, mythic, like all great Westerns should be. And also an opportunity to make a film under the big sky. I mean, what is a Western? A Western is generally an intense, intimate drama, played out against this huge, inhospitable landscape. And that’s, I think, what this one is too.