Matt Damon in Green Zone
If you're going to work on a movie with director Paul Greengrass get ready to take an exciting and potentially bumpy trip because his films tend to resemble live-action choose your own adventures.
I'm not talking about the stunts in his films, or the fast-paced plots, or the staccato dialogue. I'm referring to his penchant for improvisation. Basically, he likes to give his actors a general map of the route that he plans for his movie, and see where it takes them all. Or throw an actor overboard and see if he swims.
This sweet spot between writing, performing and editing is what Greengrass says brings his movies to life and what makes his newest movie Green Zone, as well as the ever-popular Bourne franchise, so appealing. When Greengrass feels like the actors are getting comfortable in their parts, he messes with them.
"I like to make it very, very free and sometimes I’ll make it freer even than the screenplay is so I can deny a piece of information to the actors so they really are forced to be in the moment," he said at a Green Zone press event. "Sometimes if that doesn’t work I might reintroduce the script ... but essentially you’re trying to free the thing up ... It’s a process of organically building your way to a goal that you see clearly in the distance or dimly in the distance through the terrain that you actually traverse as you go."
In Green Zone, a fictionalized account of the search for WMD in Iraq, Greengrass is lucky enough to work with actors who embrace this kind of on-camera challenge and who can't wait to see what's around the next bend in the road. To lend the film a greater sense of realism, Greengrass drafted Iraqi war vets to work on and off-screen and to steer struggling actors in the right direction.
Matt Damon relied heavily on former Mobile Exploitation Team leader Monty Gonzales, who his character warrant office Roy Miller is loosely based on. Gonzaleslived through many of the stressful moments of WMD hunting that Damon was called upon to act out.
"All those orders I’m giving, what those guys said -- you would send this team this way, you guys’ll go this way, follow the 203 down there and you feel that kind of heightened sense of -- and all that adrenaline while it’s happening," Damon said. "And, also, it keeps you, as an actor, from f***ing it up thinking about it too much, where you go, 'Well, this is the moment I’m going to give him a steely gaze.' You don’t have any time -- you don’t really know what’s going to happen."
"There was a take where Sayyed [Said Faraj] was so -- Paul had directed him to be so non-compliant and I was trying to talk to him and he was screaming at me in Arabic. And I was trying to talk to him and he wasn’t listening to me and I just said, 'Potts, shut this ****ing guy up.' And I made the mistake of saying it to an actual Marine, who muzzled him and dropped him by hitting him in the back of the knees so fast. And suddenly this guy was on the ground and his eyes were wide open and he was looking up at me and we just kept going ... You never knew where things we going to go. And that’s really exciting. And that’s where the non-actors really help, because they know their s**t and it makes us so much more believable. Because a bunch of actors in a room… God, we would have had to rehearse that thing forever."
Jason Isaacs who cast as Major Briggs got to, among other things, rough up Matt Damon, has an especially thrilling story about his first day on set which sounds like something, well, right out of a movie.
"So I went to the trailer with the costume on, pretty much the same costume I wore for Black Hawk down, oddly, and then, different rank, and then I went into the makeup trailer and I saw these Iraqi mustaches laid out," Isaac said.
"And I knew I was playing a very special forces guy, and so I cut some of the mustaches up with the help of the makeup lady, and made that kind of handlebar mustache for myself. And I went down on to the set and I saw a Paul and he said, 'Hey Jase! How are you!' and the next thing he said, he looked at me and said, 'what the f**k is that?' And I said, 'It’s a mustache that special forces guys, they get to grow mustaches.' I said it in a very serious, grave voice so he might think I knew what I was talking about. I said, 'They get to grow facial hair, it’s one of the things that separates them from the ordinary serving men.' He went, 'A-ha. Okay. Uh…you know what? Let’s try it in the scene.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He goes, 'Jump on a helicopter.'"
"'Turn around,' he says to the first assistant, 'Let’s shoot a different scene. Let’s get Jason on a helicopter flying in,' and I go, 'What do you mean? What scene? What am I going to do?' He goes, 'Get on a helicopter, Matt [Damon]’s got some prisoners, take his prisoners, don’t take any s**t. He gets in your way, knock him down, jump on him, kick him, grind his face in the dirt, whatever. You can ignore him. Get the prisoners, get back on the helicopter. Okay, let’s go.' And I went, 'Seriously, that’s it?'"
" I felt like Ashton Kutcher was going to jump out with a camera somewhere. And that was it. I was jumping on a helicopter, but I was, 'What am I meant to say? I don’t know how to play…where’s this guy from?' And he says, 'Find out from your voice.' And I jumped on the helicopter and these men, who subsequently became close friends of mine who I filmed with for a year, who were all currently serving soldiers or people just back from Iraq or Afghanistan, and I said, 'What do I say? What do I do?' And I tried to understand what they were saying over the scream of the rotor blades, and I was off on a helicopter, and you know, action, and I was on-board the Greengrass express until December."
Khalid Abdalla, who plays Roy Miller's translator Freddy sums up his experience a bit more succinctly.
"I think somewhere in the production notes I said before that working with Paul is a bit like being on a volcanic island, yeah," Abdalla said. "I always wanted to touch molten lava. I think that’s the closest I’ve ever got."
Even Amy Ryan who plays Wall Street Journal correspondent Lawrie Dayne, the lone female of the group, wasn't sure her character would make it out alive.
"Well, there were versions – there was a version where I died," Ryan said. "And there was a version where I lost my leg. And one day, news came in that I lived, and I was kinda disappointed. (Laughs). I wanted to get in on that action, yeah. But it was fun, so instead I just walked with good strong purpose."
Whether the actors live, die, lose a limb or get blown up one thing's for certain: fans of the Bourne franchise will not be disappointed. The action is high, Matt Damon is intense and the story is incredibly realistic. This is both the pleasure and the rub of Greengrass' style. The story is so believable that it's tough to separate the actual truth of what happened during the search for WMDs in the months after the invasion of Iraq and the speculative aspects of the story that Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland put forth in their newest thrill ride.
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