‘Captain Phillips’ Helmer Paul Greengrass Talks His Evolution

Variety fetes the filmmaker at the British Independent Film Awards

Paul Greengrass BIFA
Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images

“Lucky” is a word that crops up repeatedly in an interview with Paul Greengrass. More than once, the 58-year-old Briton interrupts his own train of thought to express his general gratitude for the way his career has turned out.

“The opportunities I’ve been given, and continue to be given — I’ve always felt very blessed,” he says deliberately, almost bashfully.

Let it be said that 2013 has given Greengrass much reason to feel this way. “Captain Phillips,” his first feature since 2010’s underperforming “Green Zone,” has held fast at the domestic and international box office, drawn admiring reviews and significant awards hopes.

Greengrass’ own trophy haul will begin at the Dec. 8 British Independent Film Awards, where he’ll receive the Variety Award for bringing international attention to U.K. cinema — a fitting honor for a director who has remained fiercely loyal to British collaborators even as Hollywood, beginning with his 2004 franchise takeover “The Bourne Supremacy,” has invested in his talent.

“I’ll always see myself as a British filmmaker, powerfully so,” he stresses.

His air of modesty is far from affected — rather, he speaks with the voice of an artist who waited some time for his career to take shape, and well knows how his ambitions may have gone unfulfilled. A Cambridge graduate, Greengrass cut his teeth on the long-running U.K. current affairs series “World in Action” — a training ground he claims schooled him in “the art of observation,” instilling in the aspiring filmmaker a keen sense of British documentary tradition that he has maintained even in his most genre-leaning narrative work.

Only in his 30s did Greengrass segue into dramatic storytelling with “Resurrected,” a TV-produced story of post-Falklands War trauma that played the Berlin Film Festival. The director remained dissatisfied, however.

“As I entered my 40s, I began to struggle with where I’d ended up,” he recalls. “I’d got a long way from my documentary roots, but had instead begun to inhabit very conventional dramatic storytelling.”

“The Theory of Flight” (1998), a disability romance starring Helena Bonham Carter and Kenneth Branagh, was a breaking point. “I felt I’d lost my way with that film,” he says frankly. “The challenge was to find a filmmaking style that was authentically mine.”

He found it with the BAFTA-winning 1999 telefilm “The Murder of Stephen Lawrence” (which he describes as “my first film that I felt looked like the one in my head”), followed by 2002’s IRA drama “Bloody Sunday,” which won the Golden Bear at Berlin; both films established the rough-and-ready docudrama aesthetic that has remained his stylistic signature.

“I was determined to bring that sensibility into mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, and wasn’t going to compromise on that,” he says. The opportunity came with the “Bourne” films, which sandwiched “United 93,” the tough-minded 9/11 dramatization that earned him a 2006 Oscar directing nom.

Since then, he’s more or less alternated fiction and nonfiction projects, though he prefers not to be too “prescriptive” in his choices. “It’s one long conversation with yourself,” he says of his career, “about how you see the world and what’s important to you. Sometimes those things are quite conscious, and sometimes the patterns are less obvious until you look back.”