‘News of the World’ Director Paul Greengrass on Reuniting With Tom Hanks and Making His First Western

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Director Paul Greengrass has roughly a dozen films under his belt, a mix that captures real-life horrors like 9/11 (“United 93”) and the 2011 Norway terrorist attacks (“22 July”), as well as fictional accounts of amnesiac CIA assassins (“The Bourne Supremacy,” “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Jason Bourne”).

With “News of the World,” which debuts in theaters on Christmas Day, Greengrass ventures into new terrain: westerns. It’s a genre he grew up loving and had always wanted to tackle as a filmmaker. The immense, inhospitable landscapes pave the way for what Greengrass calls a “mythic quality,” one that’s ripe for intimate, dramatic storytelling.

“When I was a boy, I grew up with westerns,” the British director told Variety. “It’s a genre you see less of nowadays. But in the end, each generation explores the western. It speaks about identity, who we are and who we want to be. I like that about it. I wanted this film, even though it’s set in 1870, to feel like our world today.”

“News of the World” reunites Greengrass with Tom Hanks. The duo first worked together on 2013’s “Captain Phillips,” which depicts the true story of a Somali pirate hijacking and received numerous Oscar nominations. Though Hanks had not appeared in a Western prior to “News of the World,” Greengrass says the revered actor often referred to as America’s Dad was a natural fit. “He sat in that landscape perfectly, with his weathered face and lines,” Greengrass mused. “He has a sense of having lived life and seen things.”

In “News of the World,” Hanks plays a Civil War veteran who travels from town to town delivering the top headlines about presidents and queens, glorious feuds and devastating catastrophes. Along the way, he meets a young girl (portrayed by Helena Zengel) who was captured years ago by the Kiowa people, and ventures across dangerous stretches of land to return her home.

Ahead of the movie’s big-screen debut, Greengrass caught up with Variety to discuss the cinematic draw of Hanks and the future of the film industry.

Why was Tom Hanks perfect for this role?

It’s the story of a lonely newsreader who reads the news for anyone with a nickel to spare in an old barn or dusty town square. The movie is about the healing power of storytelling. His character is a tiny thread that connects community to community. And he’s a man with the past. When someone leaves this little girl, he has to go on this odyssey through the dangerous landscape in search of healing. That all adds up to Tom Hanks to me because he’s hugely trusted. He has such a wonderful humanity about him.

What did you learn from working with Tom the second time around?

I really learned why he’s one of the best actors we’ve ever had. His enthusiasm is undimmed and his appetite for hard work is undimmed. I learned he could ride a horse — I never knew that. And I learned he could handle a firearm — I didn’t know that. And I learned he looked fantastic in a frock coat.

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in “News of the World” ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Col

His co-star young Helena Zengel really holds her own onscreen against Tom. What about their dynamic worked so well together?

Their chemistry was superb. You could tell that straight away. I thought we were going to have tremendous problems finding a young actress capable of playing this part. It’s very demanding. She’d have to be toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks. Then I saw “System Crasher,” a film in Germany [starring Zengel]. What I thought was going to be a long process of seeing many, many people turned out to only be seeing one and giving her the part.

When she turned up on set, obviously you have anxiety about how it going to turn out. The first scene we shot was when [her character and Tom’s] first meet each other in the woods. She was just brilliant. After the first couple of takes, Tom came over to me and said quietly, “She’s absolutely magnificent.” I never felt any anxiety after that. She had tremendous instincts as an actress. She had tremendous ability to convey emotion, and she is the real deal. There’s no question about it.

What was the most physically demanding scene to shoot?

Oh, easy. That was the shootout in the mountain in the middle of the movie, which was incredibly demanding because we had to be roped up to the top. That was incredibly hard work to get all the gear up there. When we got there, there were nice families of rattlesnakes. That was a challenge. But the truth is, we were out in the desert so the whole film was demanding. If there was dust or wind or heat or cold or rattlesnakes — oddly it bred a great sense of adventure on behalf of those lucky enough to work on the film. I think that shows in the finished film.

Does the experience differ when you’re directing a movie that you’ve written versus one that someone else wrote? 

If I’m absolutely honest, whether I’ve written them or not, I will have been intimately involved in the shaping of the screenplay by the time I get to shoot it. It’s not like it just turns up as a screenplay and I start shooting it. I’ve got to live it, breathe it and own it — whether I’m the one writing or not. I wouldn’t say necessarily it’s that different. Moviemaking is a collective endeavor. It’s not all about one person. It’s about the way you engage with everybody, whether it’s the writer, the cinematographer or the actors.

You’ve made several franchise and non-franchise movies. Do you prefer one to the other?

I wouldn’t say I prefer one to another, I’m really glad I’ve done both. I love that I’ve made different sorts of movies. I’ve made tiny movies, I’ve made very big movies, and I’ve made ones in between like “News of the World.” Franchise moviemaking is a particular skill. It’s very challenging because you have the weight of commercial expectations on your shoulders. And it’s important you serve that because franchise movies make the movie world go ’round. Do you know I mean? They keep the studio up — in the past anyway. They keep everything ticking so that we can make other movies as well. I’ve always enjoyed making films that people want to come and see. I’m proud that some of the “Bourne” movies, people still love and watch today. They are just as personal to me as any other movie I’ve made.

What do you make of the challenges facing the film industry?

The industry is facing two challenges at the moment, one inside the other. The first is obviously the existential challenge of COVID. There are [almost] no theaters open, and productions have been interrupted. Inside that, we have structural change occurring within our industry connected the rise of the streamers. I don’t think it’s a question of choosing one over the other. I think our business is going to explore a future where the theatrical experience coexists with the streaming experience. In the end, you have to accept it because it’s the way the business is going. But I don’t accept it unwillingly. I’m optimistic. I think the theatrical experience is going to come back, and it’s going to prosper. I think its coexistence with streaming will lead to more films being made, different films being made. Change doesn’t come without challenges, but movies are central places in our culture and that is going to continue.

You’ve said in the past that you never make nihilistic or hopeless films. Why is that important to you?

It’s never more clearly articulated than in “News of the World.” I wanted to explore what the road towards hope looks like. I’m an optimistic person, and I’m a parent. When I look at my children and I look at the fucked up state of the world today, I know my kids will make it a better world. Not just my kids — everybody’s kids. We’re stuck at the moment, but change will come and young people will take us to a better place. I’m absolutely convinced of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.