Handheld camera gives films edge

As the action whizzes by, moviegoers munching their popcorn at “The Bourne Ultimatum” likely won’t stop to ponder the convergence of spy thriller and cinema verite.

But director Paul Greengrass did.

The fast-moving sequences through the narrow streets and rooftops of Tangier in “Ultimatum” were an homage to Gillo Pontecorvo’s ultra-realistic “Battle of Algiers,” says Greengrass.

Jumping off the extreme improvisational realism that Greengrass nurtured in 2002’s “Bloody Sunday” and honed with “Bourne Supremacy” and “United 93,” the third installment in Universal’s action series feels real in a way that most studio summer popcorn movies do not. With “Ultimatum,” Greengrass puts his trademark intimate cinema in the service of a $130 million actioner and raises the bar for all action movies.

Greengrass uses many of the same documentary techniques that terrified moviegoers in “The Blair Witch Project” and made them laugh in “Borat” to create high-octane action sequences through eight cities around the world. But instead of being bored at enduring yet another car chase, viewers feel that what happens to his characters actually matters.

While the studios’ summer slates are built almost wholly on escapist fare such as the “Shrek,” “Spider-Man” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchises, Greengrass exemplifies the movement toward no-frills moviemaking that has been growing among independent filmmakers, from the U.K.’s Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Kevin Macdonald and Denmark’s Lars von Trier and Susanne Bier to Americans like Larry Clark and David Gordon Green.

“The Bourne Supremacy” arguably affected the filmmaking style of the most recent James Bond movie, “Casino Royale,” which put Daniel Craig’s believable Bond through his breathtakingly filmed action paces. Other recent studio films that draw on the verite style are Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel” and Fernando Meirelles’ “The Constant Gardener.”

Building on what he learned from his years as a documentary filmmaker, Greengrass builds character and tells story within action sequences, all at the same time. He says: “We’re developing the story as we shoot and move. That means the end is in doubt right until late in the process.”

It’s organic, he says, noting that he strives to avoid the “temptation with the resources of a large movie to insulate yourself from the real world and create a space with a fence around it that’s hermetically sealed.”

Hence the spectacular sequence in “Ultimatum” at London’s Waterloo Station, as Jason Bourne tries to protect a hapless journalist (Paddy Considine) from a pack of lethal assassins, all moving through a real train station surrounded by hundreds of people.

“We were effectively running a studio picture like a student film,” says Greengrass, who did storyboard and pre-visualize the Waterloo sequence on video. “You have to think on your feet. It has got a sense of energy and of place. Bourne is driven across a contemporary landscape; you have to realize it with enough detail so people get that fact.”

Universal went along for the ride with Greengrass, partly because the Brit filmmaker is the epitome of focused organization compared to director Doug Limon, who set the visual tone for the series with “The Bourne Identity,” and also because Greengrass proved what he could do on “Bourne Supremacy” and “United 93.”

“It’s definitely a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants production,” says Universal production prexy Donna Langley. “But it’s not ad hoc. There’s a method to the madness. … The filmmakers and the studio are collaborative and constantly talking and looking at the material.

“Paul’s methodology allows for an element of improvisation, which gives immediacy. He’s juggling many balls at the same time, but he always knows exactly where he’s going.”

Greengrass compares the handheld camera to the first-person point of view in fiction.

“Your p.o.v. is limited to the eye of the character,” he says, “instead of the camera being a godlike instrument choreographed to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes the camera will not know what’s going to happen. That gives you space; you can play in that space, you can let the actors be totally free. It creates an edge on the set.”

This style of filmmaking adds believability, suspense, surprise and in-your-face emotion. J.J. Abrams’ trailer for his as-yet unmade Jan. 18 project looks like a homevideo of a group of young partygoers thrust into the middle of an explosive attack on New York City that sends the head of the Statue of Liberty flying. Suddenly, “Blair Witch” style, it’s happening to you.

Handheld improv works at getting laughs too, as “Knocked Up” and “Borat” illustrate.

“Audiences are demanding authenticity,” says Langley. “You see it in comedy.”

And as the film calendar turns from summer to weightier fall fare, the streamlined realism so effectively used by Greengrass in “The Bourne Ultimatum” will pop up in other films.

Susanne Bier employs the techniques in service of a relationship drama with DreamWorks’ “Things We Lost in the Fire,” starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro, both sans makeup.

The Hollywood budget didn’t dissuade her from deploying her usual handheld intimate cameras. “It’s about making sure the story and characters are truthful,” she says. “Did I get that truthful moment?”

It’s no surprise that lower-budget dramas and comedies are taking advantage of intimate, in-your-face camerawork to capture the full spectrum of human emotion. But you don’t expect a studio franchise to change the face of cinema. That’s exactly what Greengrass has done with “Ultimatum.”

Car chases will never be the same.

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