PARIS — In 1979, Paul Greengrass became the first person to get permission to film inside Northern Ireland’s notorious Maze Prison, which housed paramilitary prisoners.
Greengrass’ interview with Raymond McCartney, one of the Maze’s most outspoken hunger strikers, became a cause celebre, as well as the inspiration for British artist Richard Hamilton’s famous painting, “The Citizen.”
The interview established Greengrass’ credentials as a vital documentarymaker for the groundbreaking Granada TV series “World in Action” and provoked in its author an abiding fascination for Northern Ireland and its troubles — shaping his film style.
Greengrass translated his passion into two films: “Bloody Sunday” (2002), a dramatization of the 1972 Irish civil rights protest march that ended in a massacre by British troops; and “Omagh” (2004), about the 1998 Real IRA bombing that killed 29 people in Omagh, Northern Ireland. Both made for British television, Greengrass wrote and directed “Bloody Sunday,” which won the Golden Bear at Berlin, and co-wrote and produced “Omagh.”
“Early on I always felt that Northern Ireland, far from being this defigured, violent abscess on the body politic, was in fact the most interesting dynamic melting pot in which much of today’s, indeed tomorrow’s politics, first took shape,” Greengrass says. “The solutions to the problems in Northern Ireland have given inspiration to solving conflicts in many parts of the world because they mirror most modern conflicts: namely two tribes, two traditions, two nationalisms wanting to occupy the same piece of land.”
The central character in “Bloody Sunday,” Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) is a Greengrass archetype — neither on one side nor the other, but somewhere in between. Cooper, a civil rights man who led the peaceful anti-
internment march that culminated in Bloody Sunday, was born to a working-class Protestant family and yet aligned himself with Catholic nationalists.
“The reason why I made ‘Bloody Sunday’ in the way that I did is because guys like Ivan Cooper had seen the truth that it’s taken the rest another 20 or 30 years to understand,” says Greengrass. “If you’re going to resolve conflicts, you cannot resolve them on the basis of conflicting nationalisms, you can only resolve them on the basis of developing shared rights.”
While inspired by the cinema verite style of directors like Alan Clarke, Gillo Pontecorvo (particularly “The Battle of Algiers”) and Costa-Gavras, Greengrass’ filmmaking process is still very much his own.
“On the first day of filming (“Bloody Sunday”) so as to give the actors space, we abandoned the lighting so it didn’t get in their way,” remembers Granada TV’s Mark Redhead, who produced the pic.
“The process evolved into something that approached a documentary style but it wasn’t at all deliberate.
“We began by shooting the actors from all sorts of angles, but Paul wasn’t at all happy with that and felt we were missing a lot of great improvisation. Instead he decided to shoot the film from one angle. That resulted in quite a lot of scenes where you’re really just shooting the back of people’s heads, but it made you feel like you were witnessing something that was really happening.”
Both “Bloody Sunday” and “Omagh” were shot with handheld cameras, as were subsequent Greengrass films “United 93” and the two “Bourne” sequels.
“We had a bunch of rules partly to do with not having a lot of money, partly for artistic reasons,” says Pete Travis, who directed “Omagh.” “We wanted our film to have a realism as if we were there, so we used only natural light, we had one camera, with one zoom lens. Whenever we shot a scene, we did it in one take, and if we did it again we did it from a different angle but still in one take. The intention was to try and create a dynamic reality and have the camera feel like it was a person in the room.”
In many ways, “Bloody Sunday” and “Omagh” bookend the troubles in Northern Ireland, not only because they confront tragedies that were played out 26 years apart, but also because of the way in which “Bloody Sunday” had to exist as a film before “Omagh” could be made.
“I know the families of Omagh watched ‘Bloody Sunday’ and were so inspired by the truthfulness of it that they approached Paul to make ‘Omagh,’ ” Travis says. “I think that says a lot about a filmmaker when ordinary people who have been through a terrible crisis say, ‘We want you to tell our story.’ “