On Paul Greengrass, Shaky Cam, and When Movies Feel Real

After difficulties with director Doug Liman, producers of The Bourne Identity decided to make a change when choosing who would helm their sequel. They went with Paul Greengrass, a journalist who had transitioned into filmmaking and most recently had released Bloody Sunday, a film about the infamous 1972 shootings of Irish anti-internment activists. The film caught the attention of Patrick Crowley, one of the producers, who said this of Greengrass’s style: “I was really knocked out by [Bloody Sunday]. He knew how to create scenes that looked as if they’d been achieved spontaneously and realistically. His sense of the camera as a participatory viewer really suited the continuation of Jason’s story; his visual style matches with the anti-hero, the gritty very realistic settings, and the lack of customary Hollywood story beats in [The Bourne Supremacy].” This “participatory viewer” style has become a hallmark of Greengrass’s films, and for better or for worse, has been adopted by many major Hollywood action movies, commonly referred to as “shaky cam.” But while Gary Ross might use it in The Hunger Games to obscure violence, Greengrass uses it to convey both chaos and tension and place you in situations with the characters.

The “shaky cam” style unfortunately caught on in action filmmaking not to place the audience member in the chaos of the fight or battle, but to make the scene cheaper to shoot and easier to make PG-13. Action films like Battle: Los Angeles and Safe House had plenty of other problems, but up at the top of the list was their completely incoherent action. The Bourne films had their share of coherency issues as well, but they at least still managed to maintain a good sense of geography and stuck with the style throughout. Ross only uses shaky cam in the most violent moments of The Hunger Games, just so he can show the slaughter of children without showing too much. A scene in Supremacy using shaky cam looking through a crowd puts you on the edge of your seat, in Elysium you’re stuck wishing you knew what was happening.

After Supremacy was a big hit, Universal asked Greengrass back. He agreed, but in exchange he asked them to let him make “one for him,” a film recounting the events of United Airlines flight 93, which was hijacked on September 11th, 2001. United 93 remains Greengrass’s best film and his best use of the shaky-cam style. Most films about 9/11, be it the overly sappy Reign Over Me or the grossly manipulative Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, feel very manufactured and calculated. Nothing about Greengrass’s style has that feel, and so United 93 is just a very tense, straightforward depiction of some of the day’s events that don’t wallow in sadness. Greengrass also got to use a cast of (at the time, at least) unknowns, something that the Bourne series would never give him.

Greengrass then went off and made The Bourne Ultimatum, which struggled through the writers strike but still emerged as the best of the series (despite being somewhat of a retread of Supremacy). Greengrass again made the deal with Universal to make a film for him, then another Bourne movie, but it didn’t go quite as well. The production of Green Zone was full of problems, including massive reshoots of the last act of the film, and by the end Greengrass was so fed up with Universal that he walked away. The Iraq war film was Greengrass’s weakest by a significant margin, overly convolute, bogged down with messages, and utilizing shaky-cam to the worst degree.

Now, three years after that disaster, Greengrass is back in full form, with his best film since United 93, the Tom Hanks-starring Somali pirate thriller Captain Phillips. The classic Greengrass trademarks are all there: his style of camerawork, a cast of unknowns (save Hanks and a brief cameo by Catherine Keener), and a riveting true story. Much like United 93, it’s also unbearably tense and shows that after a minor misstep we can look forward to a lot more great work from the director.

Will you be seeing Captain Phillips this weekend? Are you a fan of “shaky cam” and Paul Greengrass?

Article by Wesley Emblidge

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