Before making 2004’s international espionage thriller The Bourne Identity, British director Paul Greengrass was best known for his work dramatizing such tough subjects as the first war in Iraq (1996’s U.K. telefilm The One That Got Away) and the conflict in Northern Ireland (2002’s acclaimed Bloody Sunday). Now, with April 28’s United 93, Greengrass tackles 9/11. Shot primarily in London late last year and starring mostly unknown actors, the film reenacts the events aboard the hijacked plane that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers attempted to overtake the four terrorists. On the final day of production at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport last January, Greengrass spoke with EW about coming to grips with one of America’s greatest tragedies.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: United 93 is the first theatrically released feature to deal directly with 9/11. How did you decide it was the right time?
PAUL GREENGRASS Well, you can never know that it’s the right time. You can only believe that it is. The point is, it’s the most important event of my lifetime. And Hollywood has a long and honorable tradition of processing reality. Somehow we have to start to try and make sense of what happened that day. When is the right time? I guess you know when you approach [the surviving] families and they say yes. They want this film made. They’ve all cooperated. And what you have to try to do is make the film with a lot of humility, and hope you get it right. That’s all you can do.
Why were you interested in this story of 9/11 in particular?
Because of this kind of quirk of fate, Flight 93 was delayed [for] 40, 45 minutes. It was the last [of the four hijacked planes] to take off. So you have this extraordinary situation where the passengers began to learn what we all learned — that something terrible was going on. Whereas we didn’t realize what was causing it, they knew full well, because they were looking at four hijackers. In the most unimaginably stressful conditions, they had to make sense of what was happening and try to make a decision about what the best course of action was. That debate — do we sit here and hope for the best, or do we do something, and if we do, what will be the consequences? — is our debate, it’s the post-9/11 debate…. al-Qaeda, the war on terrorism — it’s such a big subject, but somehow when you’re on one airplane, it becomes possible to comprehend it on a human level.
How do you grapple with the impossibility of ever knowing exactly what happened during the flight?
You can’t know every last detail, of course. But if you look at what we do know, from the phone calls, the cockpit recorder, the profiles of the passengers, the hijackers’ plan — when you put all of that together, you actually can know a great deal. The most important thing you know is that [the passengers’ attempt to regain control] must have been a collective act. In the end, it’s about which one of us hasn’t looked or thought about that event and wondered what it must have been like, or wondered how might we have behaved in that situation.
What do you make of the conspiracy theory about the government shooting the plane down?
The simple truth is that it wasn’t shot down, and it’s very unlikely that it could have been. I actually find the disturbing truth to be the absolute worst — that that plane, given the state of confusion [on the ground], probably would have reached its target. The thing about the theories is that they tend to be quite comfortable in a funny sort of way because they reduce the world to a series of simple propositions of bad guys changing world history. Wouldn’t it just be easier if conspiracies were true? But they’re not. The world is actually frighteningly complex.