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Paul Greengrass: Why I Needed to Make ’22 July’

The director and lead actor discuss the moral responsibility of making a movie about a real-life atrocity — and why it was urgent to tell the story of the 2011 Norway attacks right now

22 July

Paul Greengrass, right, on the set of '22 July.'

Erik Aavatsmark/Netflix

Paul Greengrass was stuck. It was early 2016, and he’d been exploring a possible project about the migration of refugees coming through Lampedusa, the Italian island that had become a landing point for many seeking asylum in Europe — as well as the site of numerous incidents involving sinking boats and mass deaths. (For a good overview of what was happening there, check out the documentary Fire at Sea.) Something, however, did not feel right. “I just had the sense that this was a small part of a bigger picture,” the director says, reflecting back on his moment of frustration while sitting in a Manhattan hotel room. “And I wanted to address that. I found myself thinking, ‘I’m in the wrong place. I’m in the wrong part of Europe. This feels like it’s playing into something much larger.'”

So the British filmmaker pushed aside the idea of dramatizing the crisis happening off the Sicilian coast. Instead, he found himself thinking about a specific event that had occurred in 2011 in Norway. On July 22nd, a man named Anders Behring Breivik detonated a car bomb parked outside the Prime Minister’s office in Oslo. He then drove to a ferry that was departing for the island of Utøya, heavily armed and dressed as a police officer; he told the captain that he needed to speak to the members of an annual youth summer camp being held there in regards to the explosion. Once the boat landed, Breivik rounded up campers and counselors. He opened fire on them for the next hour, hunting down those who ran away and eventually surrendering when confronted by the authorities. Between the two attacks, he would end up killing 77 people.

Greengrass had vividly remembered hearing about the tragedy when it had occurred. Still, making a film about it had been the furthest thing from his mind. It wasn’t until the director started thinking about something Breivik had said before being sentenced that he started to connect dots. “I went back to his testimony,” he says, “and he kept mentioning ‘the betrayal of the elites, the sham of democracy, sweep it all away.’ There was all this Islamophobia, all these anti-immigrant sentiments … and just rage, all this rage. In 2011 and 2012, that rhetoric was considered in the far margins of extremity. But in 2016, no populist politician of the right would have a problem saying these things. That worldview had slowly worked its way into the mainstream.

“I suddenly thought: There’s the connection,” Greengrass adds. “The idea of globalization, those who feel alienated by it, and how this massacre was sort of an inciting moment. And then there was democracy, struggling after it had been tested. There was Breivik, and there was this young boy at the trial, Viljar Hanssen, who’d testified about surviving the attack. I could personalize the conflicting ideologies. I could personalize this fight for society’s soul.”

The result, titled 22 July — and which hit select theaters and premiered on Netflix last week — finds the man behind such harrowing, you-are-there docudramas as Bloody Sunday (2002), United 93 (2006) and Captain Phillips (2013) recreating a genuinely horrific day. Viewers will watch as young men and women on the island frolic, flirt and speak hopefully about the future. They will watch Breivik, played by Norwegian actor Anders Danielsen Lie, calmly pull out assault rifles and methodically murder innocent citizens. They will watch parents weep in hospital hallways, and Breivik’s lawyer (Jon Øigarden) reluctantly counsel his client. And you will see a man who committed a senseless act of violence smile and justify his actions by saying he’s doing this in the name of a Neo-Nazi, anti-feminist, white-supremacist “movement,” using hate speech that sounds eerily familiar today.

But audiences will also witness Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) recuperate from gunshot wounds, suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and, eventually, face the man who tried to murder him in order to prove that his spirit was not broken — and that scene, Greengrass says, is why he felt he needed to make the movie. “I did not want to do a portrait of the attacks,” he says. “I wanted to do a portrait of how Norway responded to them.” His lead actor sums up the filmmaker’s approach from a slightly different angle. “It was the idea of taking a local story and turning into a global cautionary tale,” Danielsen Lie says. “That was the only reason to go back to this moment. That was why it made sense to me to do it.”

After deciding that he would use the July 22nd attack as a way to deal with what Greengrass calls “an unprecedented — in my lifetime, at least — move toward a dangerous, destructive type of populism” in Europe, South and North America, he knew that he wanted to use reporter Åsne Seierstad’s 2013 book One of Us as the basis for his screenplay. And he knew that he wanted to balance Breivek’s story, which the journalist covers from childhood to incarceration, by elevating Hanssen’s role, a “small character in her book, but a vital one. So many people remember his speech in court, and how he’d lost his eye in the attack.”

What he initially wasn’t sure about, he admits, was whether or not to use an English-speaking cast. Greengrass felt that if “we wanted to bring this story to the world, we’d need to do it in English.” And though a decent portion of the population speak it as second language, the director knew he’d be immersing himself in a culture in which he was not fluent in the mother tongue. “It seems ridiculous to say it now, but yeah: My first thought was, ‘Well, I can’t make this in Norwegian, I don’t speak a word of it, I couldn’t help the actors … it’d be pointless,'” he says. “Someone else would have to make the film.”

“Imagine casting a young Tom Hanks as a terrorist. It was a little like that [with Anders]. But I knew he could do it.”—Paul Greengrass

Once he went over to speak to several survivors’ groups, however, Greengrass slowly began to change his mind. “I came around to the fact that really, it needed a Norwegian cast and crew,” the director says. “Because that was the only way … how can I put this? It had to have a Norwegian soul and a Norwegian sense of identity. And that meant me getting over myself in that regard. It made me feel like I was I helping them tell their story more, rather than the other way around, if that makes sense.”

It also meant that he’d be casting a Norwegian actor to play one of the nation’s most notorious mass murderers, which led him to what some felt was an odd choice at first. For fans of foreign-language films, Anders Danielsen Lie is best known for his dynamic work with the former skateboarding champ-turned-director Joachim Trier, notably Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011). For moviegoers in his native country, however, the 41-year-old is a beloved nice-guy movie star. “Imagine casting a young Tom Hanks as a terrorist,” Greengrass declares. “It was a little like that. But I knew he could do it.”

“Then he knew more than I did, maybe?” Danielsen Lie says, laughing, after being told of the director’s comment. “I had my doubts, to be honest. I told him from the outset, ‘It’s a honor to be asked, thank you, but I didn’t really see myself as a potential candidate for this.’ I mean, a few years ago, some friends of mine mentioned that it was inevitable someone would try to make a movie about the attacks. And I had told them that only person who could probably do it right was Paul — I’d seen United 93 and to me, that was an example of tackling something with respect yet not downplaying anything. Only the role was such a huge responsibility …” He trails off.

22 July

Anders Danielsen Lie in ’22 July.’

Still, the actor began to look deeper into the case. He’d watched the trial religiously, like most folks in Norway, and had already read One of Us. But per Greengrass’s suggestion, Danielsen Lie began to pore through the court transcripts and psychiatric reports. Then, in an effort to contribute something to the project, the Oslo police department gave him access to footage of Breivik being interrogated. “There were over 200 hours,” he says. “I didn’t watch all of it, but I did see a lot. And that changed everything. I guess … I expected to see a monster.”

And instead he saw? “A human being,” Danielsen Lie answers. “I mean, I was watching someone eat pizza and drink a Coke — and it was making me nauseous. I felt sick seeing a person do what is, by any standards, something completely normal. He was showing no empathy or sense of remorse about what he’d done. But it reminded me that Breivik and I come from similar backgrounds. He’s from the west side of Oslo, just like I am. We were born one month apart. We have acquaintances in common; we might have been at the same parties in our adolescence.

“It occurred to me, thinking about all of that, that radicalization doesn’t just happen to people living in extreme poverty,” he continues. “It happens in secular societies, to people who come from middle-class backgrounds, in places like Norway during one of the most peaceful times in recent history. And the ‘why’ of all this — it’s not a conversation we’ve really had in my country in the seven years since this happened. We talked about whether a man who we considered a lone wolf was fit to stand trial; we didn’t talk about the political extremism that led to it. Look what’s changed in the world since then. That was when I started to think, yes, I should do this. It made me feel like we’d be making something important.”

When it came time to film the massacre — a sequence which takes up roughly 20 minutes of screen time — Danielsen Lie went into what he describes as a dissociative state. “Survivors kept describing Breivik as ‘calm’ when it was happening,” the actor says, “so I thought to myself, I can’t play the psychology but I can play the behavior. That helped me get through it.” Greengrass, he notes, was the exact opposite — the filmmaker knew that he had to communicate the horror of the situation while still being sensitive to the fact that he was recreating scenes of real lives being lost. “When we were filming those scenes, Paul was constantly thinking about the framing of each moment, each image,” he adds. “‘Do we need to put the camera here, or here? Do we need to show this?  What do we need to show? What should we avoid here?'”

“There was a big meeting with the families of the survivors,” Greengrass remembers. “A gentleman stood up. He said, ‘I strongly support you making this film. But you’ll be doing a disservice to me — and more importantly, to my daughter, who’s no longer with us — if you sanitize the violence. On the other hand, you’ll be disrespecting us if you exploit the violence or are gratuitous with it. So you’re going to have make sense of that. These are our stipulations as parents.’ That stuck with me.

“So I hope — no, I believe — that the sequence is disturbing, because it needs to be. You can’t understand the aftermath unless you get a sense of what really happened that day. But the key word was always restraint. We were all very nervous about how those scenes would come across, and when we showed it to the families, they told us they thought it was handled incredibly well. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have done this.”

“You can’t understand the aftermath unless you get a sense of what really happened that day. But the key word was always restraint.”—Paul Greengrass

There are those, of course, who wonder whether Greengrass should have done this at all — that making movies which go to great lengths to viscerally re-stage terrorist acts risk turning real-life tragedies into nothing but cinematic spectacle. It’s an accusation that the filmmaker has heard before, notably after his 9/11 movie sparked a debate about whether such an endeavor was irresponsibly reducing a catastrophe into multiplex fodder. There have been numerous films with good intent that inadvertently cross the line and find themselves on the wrong side of tragi-porn. Mention this to him, and you expect Greengrass to become defensive. Instead, he smiles broadly and almost seems to sigh in relief. The director is glad that people question these things. He questions them constantly as well.

“It’s a completely legitimate anxiety,” Greengrass says, nodding. “Believe me, I’ve had those same thoughts myself. You’ve got to take great care. I understand the hesitation, or nervousness. There are two issues here, really. One is, do you make a spectacle out of tragedy by recreating it? And the other is: By depicting this man, do you end up giving him and his views a platform? Those are the moral issues. I thought very, very deeply about both before I dove into this. And as a responsible filmmakers, you have to have satisfactory answers before you set out to make something like this.

“The idea is not to sensationalize the attacks,” he continues, leaning in. “It has to be evident that what you’re watching is not a casual work of entertainment. It’s an attempt to do something serious. But we do have to confront this so that people understand what happened — and what’s happening now. Because look, the building is on fire. So we can’t simply shut the door and pretend all is well. All is not well.”

Still, we’re talking about a medium in which an artist can use geopolitical unrest as the basis for an action-packed spy film and then, using a similar aesthetic, turn around and attempt a film that examines the aftermath of an act of terrorism — surely, lines are being blurred here somewhat?

“I see what you’re getting at, and yes, of course, they can be blurred,” Greengrass says. “Look, I’m proud of the popcorn movies I’ve made. But a movie can do other things too. It can be art. It can be serious. And my contributions to those types of movies, like this, or United 93, or Bloody Sunday, come from my feeling that cinema also has a responsibility to tell those stories as well. Maybe it comes from my roots in documentary filmmaking, I don’t know.

“But I’ve also felt a responsibility,” he adds, “to make movies, time to time, that hold a mirror up to the world and dare to show it exactly as it is — without fear or favor, without loading the dice so that it’s propaganda, without selecting it in such a way that it’s your own private opinions. We know those films, the ones that don’t succeed in doing that … they’re definitely out there. But if that link to the world is broken, cinema would whither and die. It has to maintain that connection to stay alive. Ultimately, audiences will judge it and ask themselves: Is this helpful? As an audience member, do I find this helpful in showing me what’s happening in our world today? That’s all I can ask them.”

And does he think 22 July is helpful?

“There’s always a moment when you finish a film and say goodbye to it,” Greengrass replies after a moment or two. “And right as I was getting ready to sort of say goodbye to this, I thought, ‘Yeah, it says what I wanted it to say.’ I can’t speak to its qualities — that’s not my job. But the film doesn’t feels like it belongs to the Norway of 2011. It feels like it’s of our world today.”

In This Article: Netflix, Paul Greengrass

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