EXCLUSIVE: Universal Pictures this week began showing to taste makers News of the World, the Paul Greengrass-directed 1870s-set adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ novel about broken-down war veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd — Tom Hanks — who crosses Texas towns and reads breathtaking newspaper stories to lift the spirits of local townsfolk. He stumbles across a 10-year-old (Helena Zengel), orphaned after the killings of the Kiowa tribe members who took her in after they killed her family years earlier. The vet reluctantly agrees to escort the traumatized child to the only living relatives in Texas willing to take her in. They brave harrowing danger along the way and a bond grows.
The last unseen movie with Oscar heat — the pandemic-shot Malcolm & Marie is the other — News of the World is a throwback big-scale Western that will be the only major studio theatrical release on Christmas Day, a corridor abandoned by most because of the pandemic. Netflix will release overseas.
Set nearly 150 years ago following the end of the Civil War, the movie holds eerie parallels to many hot-button topics that have divided this country today, from fears of a pandemic (tuberculosis) to fake media and racism. In his first major interview in the run-up to release, Greengrass describes how the movie was constructed to convey hope in difficult times, a must for him after completing the Norway mass murder tragedy 22 July. The events of 2020 have made it all the more relevant, and the director’s hope is it presents a path toward healing the divide that existed then and is more evident than ever today.
DEADLINE: Your film is set in 1870s in dusty Texas small towns right after the Civil War. Explain how this backdrop became such an ideal setting to explore many of the topics ailing this country right now.
GREENGRASS: It’s set then, but it does feel very contemporary. It was a time when neighbors, families and communities were in stark and often violent conflict with each other. American society was trying to decide who they were at a time of bitter division, and how they could stitch themselves back together again and move forward together. What is the road to healing? This journey taken by Kidd, the lonely war veteran, carving out an itinerant living reading the news, and his fateful meeting with this mysterious little girl Johanna and their journey together, seemed to me to explore that. When I started this two years ago after 22 July, I wanted to make a film that was about where optimism lay. 22 July was a dark film about dark subject matter and this is about the way out of that. What does the road to healing look like? I wanted to make a film on those themes, healing and redemption. I loved the book and it seemed to speak to today. Doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum or what you believe, I think everybody feels a sense of troubling division and dis-unity. We feel it in our country and I’m sure you feel it in yours. It’s a sense of crisis, uncertain tides, waters going in all direction. How do we heal and unite toward a sense of belonging?
DEADLINE: Along their travels, we see ruthless human traffickers, the brutal lynching of a Black man, and a fascist-in-the-making buffalo hunter who has declared himself ruler of a county and who tries to force Kidd to read a newspaper he has crafted, filled with lies that laud him so he can subjugate the townsfolk who work under his rule. Your plot touches reminds of the current polarization of media, the Black Lives Matter movement and election conspiracy theories. You wrote this script with Luke Davies and shot before the pandemic and civil unrest became major stories this year. How surprised were you at the prescient nature of the plot proved to be?
GREENGRASS: All of those issues you talk about have been in our societies for generations. The sense of division didn’t just come out of nowhere did it? It has been building over many many years. This sense of alienation, injustice unaddressed. That sense of fragmentation. These are things that have been afflicting all societies in the West for years. I was surprised in a good way, and I think everyone making the film felt much felt eerily familiar. Some of that was deliberate and some of it is what happens when you make a film. If you’re lucky, it seems to speak to where you are. Hopefully this one does, without excessive sentimentality, in a world filled with challenges. It’s a dangerous journey he goes on, but ultimately it’s a journey to belonging and healing.
DEADLINE: Did you grow up hoping to one day make a real Western?
GREENGRASS: It is a dream come true for me. In my many years as a filmmaker, I’ve done tough films about where we are today; I’ve done entertaining films about spies on the run, all sorts of things, but I had never made a classical, beautiful Western. That is what I’ve tried to do here. There was a documentary series a few years ago, Five Came Back; I was one of the directors who took part along with Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan and Guillermo del Toro. Each looked at one of those directors who went to war, profoundly changing them as a result. I took John Ford because I revere him. It was an interesting journey to think and talk about Ford and study his films very carefully. This was two or three years ago and I had that in mind when this came along. I re-watched all of his films and The Searchers in particular. This is The Searchers, in reverse, the journey back rather than the journey to find. I wanted to make a film that felt a little different, slower and a little more classically shaped. I enjoyed working for the first time with [cinematographer] Dariusz Wolski, and we got on like a house of fire. I said when we hooked up I wanted the film to look a bit different than the films I’ve been doing. We pushed and pulled each other in a good creative way to make a film that feels like one of my films, but a different experience. You’ve got to change and grow if you’re a filmmaker or you’re endlessly remaking yourself. So I’ve gone from car chases to wagon chases.
DEADLINE: The Searchers had John Wayne as the larger-than-life tough character and there’s the Clint Eastwood macho persona where you felt they will always outgun the bad guys. In every confrontation here, you suspect Hanks’ Kidd character might very well get killed. He brought the everyman to your last film together, Captain Phillips. How did you see him compared to that classic Western hero prototype?
GREENGRASS: Kidd is a man battered by war and loss. He’s an imperfect man trying to be a good one in a broken and divided land. He chooses to pick up newspapers and read them, embracing an itinerant life. To me, he’s a tiny thread. His journey from town to town in South Texas gives hope to people clinging to life by their fingernails. There is an early scene where you feel how broken these people are after the war. A man comes in with his crutches, somebody else in a wheelchair. Every face is lined with the harshness of life and the hardness of work. Kidd comes to town, and for that single hour when he reads in his tattered dark suit, he allows them to escape. He is a tiny thread that draws one community to another, reconnecting that little world he inhabits down there. He’s a part of a journey of reconstitution, as each community he visits is reconnected by a shared story, news about a pandemic, tuberculosis in this case, the coming technology that will transform their lives. He talks about the railroad coming to South Texas for the first time, opening it up, giving it opportunity. In its small way, these stories draw people together again and give them hope. He himself is a broken figure, in a battered and divided world. In his essential decency, he decides to take her on this journey because in the end he’s the only one who can. He says, I found her, I’ll take her. That odyssey becomes his salvation and hers, too.
DEADLINE: You could also see how hooked that crowd was on a story well told. That plays into the odyssey the movie business has gone through in the past year, when the pandemic shut theaters for most of the year. And here your film will be the only major studio release of an Oscar-buzz film in the Christmas corridor that is usually full of them. Even if they’ve left themselves the option to pivot to PVOD after 17 days, with offshore distribution coming from Netflix streaming…
GREENGRASS: I would say two things. When I wrote it and we made it, it was very much on my mind in those scenes of him reading stories to the crowd. This was South Texas and of course there is no television, radio, movies or social media. These communities were at the mercy of tuberculosis and poverty and the consequences of war that left them battered and broken, but the telling of stories sustains and revives them. For those of us who have the great privilege to work in this business, that’s always been the great mission. To entertain people, to tell stories and give them characters people can identify with to want to go on those journeys with. And you hope that for two hours, you can spin a story for people that will take them beyond the hardship of their lives. That’s what movies has always been about for me, going back to the beginning. Why did people hovel in those beautiful picture palaces? Because they were warm, magical places where you could have a collective experience and be transported by storytelling to places of fantasy, to worlds that felt like your own. Showing the best of you and the worst of you. Somewhere in the big-screen experience, you are elevated, and healed. That’s the whole story of the movies, for me. I love that Universal, a movie studio that of course is twitching like all the studios and all of us are in the pandemic, is going for the collective experience. Whether it’s sports, movies or in each others, it has all been denied to us for so long now, but we have to try and somehow keep these collective experiences going. Try and believe that movies will come back. And they will. So I admire how Universal is doing this, even though it might be the same as when Tenet came out. These studios know they’re not going to be the revenue in movies that there would be in a normal year. But it’s an expression of faith and commitment to the collective movie-making and exhibition business that goes back 100 years or more. I think people will go and see it. It’s a big movie meant to be seen on the big screen. But the movie business is changing and people will enjoy it in whatever way they want to experience it. I admire that Universal is putting it in movie theaters, first. It’s an expression of the deep commitment that studio has to the craft of film making and the theatrical experience that means so much in all our societies. And a film about storytelling in dark times, with a healing message, is a great one to do it on.
DEADLINE: Universal has hedged its bet selling international rights to Netflix. On the plus side, period Westerns don’t traditionally play that strong overseas, and this will hit a big audience. How did you feel about putting on Netflix 22 July, a stark movie about extremist violence about Norway’s worst terrorist attack?
GREENGRASS: There are two crises facing the movie business, one inside the other. The first is the pandemic that affects us all and strikes directly at the theater going exhibition movie business and the collective enjoyment of movies. Inside that is a great structural change that has been going on a few years, but has been vastly accelerated by the pandemic. And that is the challenge of how theatrical motion pictures can co-exist within the era of globally streamed content. If you look at all the main streamers and studios, they’re all attempting to do and offer the same thing essentially, with slightly different formulas. That same thing is filmed content, stories on film, that are going to be offered to the public in a mixture of streaming and theatrical, all virtually at the same time. That’s where the business is going. If you look at Netflix on 22 July, it was a wonderful experience from my point of view. A staggering number of people watched that film, because Netflix made it. Whereas if I’d made it as a tiny art house movie, a few hundred thousand people might have seen it. Maybe 30 million people saw it, a staggering number. They offered that as they were in the process of building a limited theatrical offering that went alongside their streamed offering. Studios are now trying to build streams alongside their theatrical offerings. They’re all trying to do things towards the same destination, and they’ll end up offering different measures of the same thing. The theatrical studios will lean into exhibition, but they’re going to have streaming alongside, as a core part of it. I admire the way Universal and Netflix came together on this internationally. Universal is in the process of building that global streaming network, but they’re not there yet. They’re very much there in North America with Comcast. Netflix is there internationally. One of the great things about our business is that it’s huge, but actually it’s quite intimate. The people at the top all know each other. Donna Langley and Jeff Shell, Jimmy [Darmody] and Scott Stuber all know each other well. As a filmmaker, it has been great to feel the imaginative way our business has responded to this.
DEADLINE: Sounds like as in the case of your film, it comes to a well-told story, and then figure out the platform it is told in.
GREENGRASS: Technology, it’s one of the major points of News of the World. It’s 1870, when technology is about to engulf that world and change it profoundly. Kidd talks about how the railroad will have a bearing because now they’re stuck. The Red River is flooded, the bridges are down and the ferry is sunk. But the railroad is coming and it’s going to transform everything, and technology is going to change our world for sure. Us here in the UK and you in the U.S. are in the midst of this awful pandemic with all the loss of life and suffering, and families fractured and broken. But we will come through it. Technology is going to save us, in the form of vaccines and other advances that are coming. For all the sense of division we are experiencing today, I am personally very optimistic, and I wanted to make this film to address the fear and sense of division that gives rise to the kind of extremism that my last film was about. I wanted to balance it with a firm sense of optimism. Not casual or sentimental optimism. The road toward healing and restored unity is not an easy one and Kidd and Johanna show us a bit what that road can look like.
DEADLINE: I think of your early work as a documentary journalist and your fact-based films like Bloody Sunday, Captain Phillips and United 93. You are across the pond but an informed observer. How did you process what happened in the U.S. this year, where even after the presidential election was decided for Joe Biden, President Trump is unwilling to concede and cites election rigging conspiracies that seem baseless. Social media platforms at least try to verify volatile posts that are often banned now, but media has never been more polarized. What’s your sense of what is happening in my country?
GREENGRASS: Your country, like mine, is split down the middle. There is very little common ground and because there is little common ground, one of the most troubling things is the sense of common reality, common facts all start to erode and collapse. You can look at symptoms, which in your country and mine, would be the growth of conspiracy theories, the tendency to disbelieve statements from authority and experts. They’re symptoms, not causes. The causes are deeper; division, a sense of being unheard, on both sides. A hard fought and close election like you just had and that we had in our country with the Brexit referendum…you can’t pretend that one election solves it all. It doesn’t. The only solution is when both sides start to move together towards a common purpose. I think that’s going to put tremendous responsibility on the incoming administration, to reach out and try and carry as best they can a suspicious narrow minority. As you asked that question, here’s what came to my mind. A referendum that was seismic and probably the most important event in my adult lifetime in my country, severing our institutional relationships with Europe that we had grown up with for 50 or 60 years, that were the dream of those going back to the aftermath of the second World War. A truly profound rupture, shocking to people like me, but long desired for by people who wanted it.
My daughter left college, just after the referendum, with wounds very bitter and deep that haven’t healed at all yet. She went traveling to Australia and headed up the southeast coast to Byron Bay, in a coming-of-age trip that you take. She and her school friend traveled with a group of lads from Sunderland in the UK, which is up in the northeast. It’s like Pennsylvania would be for you, a classic Rust Belt part of the UK. Very nice boys. She got back and told me, we were sitting and talking in a bar one night. She grew up in the South of England, they from the far Northeast. She said to this boy, you know, I’ve never met or had a proper conversation with anybody who voted for Brexit. He said, do you know I’ve never met anybody or had a conversation with anyone who voted to remain? Those two young people, who spent a couple months going up the coast of Australia, drinking beer and having fun and exploring the world and doing the things young people should, they talked to each other and started to inhabit shared experiences beyond the divisions of their parents, which they themselves inherited and acted upon. That’s what has to happen. This is not about one election, where one side wins. It’s got to be about a long period of time where we need to learn to listen to one another and try and understand why we have such radically different views of the future. In our grandparents and great grandparents’ generation, we did that. And we’re going to have to learn to, again. We will find a way but it’s going to be painful. When we do, this sense of conspiracy, these dark feelings borne of being on the herd will start to dissipate. Not everywhere, but enough that we will develop the quorum we need as societies to move on and find a better place.
DEADLINE: Last question: I recall loving Memphis, that script you were going to make about how the feds haunted the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King and then had to hunt down his assassin, but you decided not to make it for complex reasons. You more recently had a Jimi Hendrix project with Legendary and Thomas Tull that had the cooperation of the estate. Is that in your future?
GREENGRASS: No, I don’t think so. I think I just will settle for loving his music. I did talk to Janie [Hendrix] but one of the beauties of telling stories is there are some that just remain things you were interested in, that nourish and enrich you different ways but aren’t in the end stories that you’re necessarily equipped to tell yourself. Other people are better equipped to tell those stories than I am and there are always more stories to tell than time to tell them.
DEADLINE: Have you figured out the next story you will tell?
GREENGRASS: I don’t know. It’s interesting talking to you, I hadn’t figured out the connection between that story about my daughter and Kidd and Johanna and their journey. Very often, it’s a sense of mood. Where do movies come from? In the end, we are all like water diviners out in the sand, trying to get that forked stick to find water, to show us the way. This particular film, News of the World, is that. I read the novel and said, Oh, yeah, the [divining] stick vibrated because I wanted to tell a healing story. That’s it! Their time in that movie is our time! I can do that and I know what to do! And Tom was perfect and so was she. Now, I’ve just picked back up my stick and I’m out there in the field in the back of my house going, which way? Where is it? I’m sure I will find it soon.
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