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6 Filmmaking Tips From Paul Greengrass

The Jason Bourne director offers advice worth remembering.
By  · Published on July 28th, 2016

Make all the jokes you want about shaky cameras, but Paul Greengrass is a director constantly in motion. His style aside, the man has a certain energy that he brings to his projects, and they in turn wind up more kinetic than most other movies made these days. So they’re exciting. And he’s inspiring. He seems to enjoy sharing his experiences with students and encouraging new voices in his field, though he’s also worried too many future filmmakers will be too rich and spoiled to create quality work.

Greengrass got his start in documentary and brings the run-and-gun sensibility of urgent nonfiction to his dramatic features. He has also kept a political edge that shows in both his adaptations of true stories and his fiction work, the latter including his latest, Jason Bourne. And speaking of him doing yet another installment of a blockbuster action franchise, it’s worth noting that he’s still a very picky director and one of the furthest things from a Hollywood hack for hire.

Learn more about his craft and what tips he has for others who’d like to follow in his process and success below.

Know Where to Put the Camera

In a 2014 Reddit AMA promoting Captain Phillips, Greengrass answered a three part question about his approach, his shooting strategy, and his style. He begins by addressing the first two, giving advice regarding camera placement:

Finding where to put the camera is probably the most important thing you have to learn when you’re a young director, and it’s something that’s a mixture of instinct and technique. The technique will lead you to shoot towards depth, shoot towards light, or shoot in a way that reveals the action of the scene in a fluid and organic way. The instinct will lead you to put the camera where it is the most dramatic participant in the scene. And the two aren’t always the same and you sometimes have to trade one against the other.

That sounds like he’s talking about stationary camera more than the handheld sort he’s associated with. In a 2007 interview with Anne Thompson for Variety, he discusses camera placement in a way we expect:

“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.”

Hear Greengrass in a bit from the Captain Phillips DVD commentary below defending his shaky cam style as sometimes the only way to shoot a scene:

Free Yourself From the Preordained

Another reason Greengrass likes the handheld shaky cam approach is that it keeps everything moving and unpredictable and alive. Even if you have a script, there’s an idea that shooting documentary style will lead to unplanned discoveries, and that spirit carries over to what the audience sees on screen. He talks of freeing himself from the preordained in many interviews, as well as in the 2015 Film4 video below.

In a 2007 interview for DGA Quarterly, he explained why he likes making dramatic films in the same manner that he made documentaries:

“With the dramatic canvas I found you could still operate with the documentarist’s observational eye,” explains Greengrass. “You could never have witnessed this scene with a documentary camera. No one’s ever going to let you see that, yet by using actors and drama you could create this event and try to record it as if it were real. Somehow the complexity of the larger event was encoded in the tiny moment that we were portraying. The collision between the two allows you to get at a bigger truth than you could by using just the one or the other.”

Espirit de Corps

Another tip Greengrass has for when you’re on set is also of an active nature. While participating in the DGA’s annual Meet the Nominees: Feature Film Symposium in 2014, alongside Martin Scorsese, Steve McQueen, and David O. Russell, he shared his typical start of each morning of shooting, which is the most important part of the day as far as setting out on the right foot. He said:

I like to do a once around. That’s what I do when I first get there. I will go and get some coffee, then I’ll go and get some more coffee… Then you’re right in the middle of everybody. Because everybody’s having breakfast. You can go around and see people, all the crew whoever’s there. Then I’ll do a trip around all the actors who are on that day. For me, the moment that you come together, I like to be on set. I’ll have spoken to everybody as soon as I come in, individually, so I can take everybody’s temperature and make everyone feel involved and it’s not just a group thing. But it’s all designed to bring us together at that moment on set so everyone knows what they’re doing. And then my overwhelming priority is I’ll rehearse the previous night so it’s all about trying to get that first shot. If you can get the first shot away early you make a strong start. If you don’t, conversely, you’re always chasing the day.

And after an injection from moderator Jeremy Kagan, Greengrass continued to stress how the routine is important for his leadership role in maintaining an energized and unified collaborative team:

Part of your job when you’re 18–20 days in and everybody’s grumpy and tired because it’s a six-day week, you’ve got to try and make people feel energized and excited about what’s coming. And individually, you’re speaking to everybody. That builds espirit de corps. And a connection between the totality of your company. Not just your actors but your crew.

Watch the whole two-hour video below.

Meet the Nominees: Feature Film Symposium –


Also in 2014, Greengrass gave a BAFTA lecture on David Lean, one of his heroes, and in it he addresses the painful reality of being a film artist, which he says you must endure and which you will likely enjoy. The following bit was highlighted by No Film School:

It’s a Sisyphean labour where you roll the rock up the mountain, all the while having your liver pecked, knowing the rock is destined every time to tumble down and crush you. And filmmaking like any creative activity, whether it’s writing or painting or whatever, is essentially a cruel exercise in emotional futility. Because in your quest to find the film, you have to endure, in fact secretly you crave it, to have every single flaw in your character, every single defect in your personality pitilessly exposed every single day, and every hope you ever have crushed and extinguished.

It’s called the director’s syndrome, because every film – and this is the serious bit – that you conceive of in your mind is rooted, I think, in the powerful unconscious dreams of childhood, and it ends in the catastrophe of adult rushes. And then if you’re lucky, and if you have a great editor, you manage to crawl out of the deep abyss of self-loathing to a place where the result is passable, but it can never remotely be as close to the sense of wonder you felt as a child in a theater watching the projector.

Listen to the whole lecture below or read the transcript.

Find Your Point of View

Now that you’re working, it’s time to evolve until you’re who you need to be – that’s not something you’ll likely know from the start. Greengrass continues his response to the three-part Reddit AMA question from the first tip on the topic of style but then focuses on the more important matter of developing a point of view and finding your voice as a filmmaker:

Style is something that can either be like a suit of clothes, something you put on, and I’m much less interested in that because it leads towards fashion, which anyone who knows me well or looks at a picture will know is not my strong suit. The other way to define style is to look at it as something that comes from inside of yourself, in other words, it’s connected to your point of view. And having a strong and committed point of view is at the heart of filmmaking. And there are some filmmakers who have such given genius that their point of view is there from the outset, but the rest of us slowly achieve a more fixed point of view through the process of making films, through trial and error, through finding out what works and what doesn’t work, and above all, through maturity. And if you’re lucky, you end up discovering who you are as a filmmaker and how you make films, and with that comes the awareness that the films that you make may not suit everybody. Hopefully, they suit some people. That’s your audience.

He had similar comments on the trial and error process in a discussion with fellow former World of Action documentarian Dick Fontaine held at the National Film and Television School in the UK:

Make as many films as you can at first and figure out what is the song that only you can sing. That is the only thing that counts in the end. Whatever your style or subject matter, in the end film-making is about searching for authenticity – that is what the audience will divine. It’s what you have the opportunity to do at the NFTS and that’s really rare.

Here he is on the filmmaker’s POV in a video borrowed from the CCEA:

Only Make Passion Projects

Trial and error and making as many films as you can doesn’t mean make any kind of movie, apparently. During the Q&A that followed his BAFTA lecture on David Lean, Greengrass was asked for advice on how others can transition from documentary to drama, just as he did. Here’s his answer:

The one mistake you must never make is to agree to make a film or sign on to film that you don’t believe in. Most importantly because it’s unfair on that. It’s not about you, it’s just not fair on that project because you’re doing it a profound disservice because you’re not serving it, you’re uncommitted ultimately. So never make that mistake, that was certainly one I made. In the end, the difficult thing is to give yourself time to find your point of view, and develop the necessary steel without alienating people. It’s a difficult mix because in the end, to direct you have to carry peoples’ confidence. You know you can’t sort of go around, I said at the beginning you know talking about being arsey. Well there’s some truth, it is true, you’ve got to have that steel and you’ve got to be in the end prepared, you’ve got to… It’s a communal business, it’s a team game, it’s a collective activity, it’s an industrial activity and it involves lots of money. It’s not like writing a novel or a poem or painting a picture. You’ve got to engage and carry peoples’ confidence, but you’ve got to lead, and that’s a paradox. It’s a paradox; you’ve got to lead but you’ve got to listen.

20 Things We Learned From Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy Commentary

What We Have Learned

Greengrass puts the motion in motion pictures. He doesn’t believe in stopping, no matter the hurdles, and even if some of those hurdles trip him up. The Oscar nominee has tried many things, made many kinds of films, and has achieved a lot along the way. He keeps things real, or at least realistic, through his process and point of view, but that’s not for everyone. He urges filmmakers to work through the hard times as they find their own unique voice and the songs to sing with that voice. And especially important is the excitement you must have for your project and your production.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.