I recently had the chance to take part via Zoom in a roundtable interview with Paul Greengrass to discuss his film News of the World. The film tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an itinerant newsreader, who is tasked with returning Johanna, a young girl raised by the Kiowa, to her relatives. For more on the film see our review.
The first question dealt with the Western genre and which conventions were interesting to him.
I grew up with westerns as a boy. They played on television nonstop when I was a kid in the UK. I never ever thought I’d get to make one because they don’t make them very often and it never really occurred to me, to be honest to try. Three or four years ago I got involved in a Netflix project called Five Came Back. That was the story of the five great Hollywood directors who went to World War II from being glittering Hollywood successes and came back after their experiences in combat changed people. If you’ve not seen it, it’s very superb, I must say. I didn’t make it. They got five directors working today—Spielberg did Wyler, Coppola did Huston, I think. I did John Ford because I studied John Ford as a young man and I revered his films. So, I spent a very interesting month three or four years ago rewatching all his films. So, he was very much in my mind.
Then it’s strange how serendipitous film making is. A few years later they sent me the novel and I read it and I thought “This is really interesting because it’s The Searchers in reverse.” This is the John Ford story but turned the other way around. Instead of being the hero’s search for the girl out in the wilderness, the hero finds the girl and is going to take her home. I remember seeing that in the novel straightaway and thinking that sort of connected to John Ford. So, in my boyhood love of westerns, I thought, “I’m going to do it.”
The genre is a quintessential American genre, of course. But it’s much more than that really. It’s mythic. What is a western? A western is a kind of intimate drama, generally about identity. Who are we? Who do we want to be? Who do we fear we’ve become? Who do we wish we could be? Various questions of identity played out against a vast, unforgiving desolate landscape. That’s a western in my book. At a time when America was becoming America. That’s what I tried to do. I tried in my way to make it feel contemporary, feel as if it bore on today. It’s set in 1870. It was a time of great division in the shadow of the Civil War. I think many of the feelings of bitter division and need for healing resonate with us today.
Communication (reading the news, interpreting the news, the struggle the Captain and Johanna had communicating) is a key theme in the film. He was asked about the role of communication in the film.
I think obviously the most striking thing from the movie is this is a world before television, before radio, before social media, before movies, in a remote place where the only entertainment, probably of the year, is when the newsreader comes to town with a couple of newspapers and reads his snippets of news and stories. In that way, he’s trying in his way to heal people—to heal the wounds of his community. Because storytelling fundamentally is a healing act. It’s what I do, what I’ve always done in my life.
We’re a storytelling animal. We tell stories to each other in church, after church, around the hearth, around the kitchen table, in cafes and bars, out on street corners, in our movie houses, in our theaters, in our concert halls. That’s what we do. The stories that we tell reflect who we are and draw our audience together with us. Sometimes they can divide us, but essentially storytelling is an act of connection.
That’s why I love that character, because he’s engaged. What has he got? He’s got nothing; he’s lost everything. All he has is a small satchel and a couple of old newspapers. But he has that most precious healing power of storytelling. As he goes on, as he goes farther down the road with the little girl, you see the strength of his storytelling more and more. Of course, the communication, that at first he can’t have with that little girl, the communication grows through the film. People can transcend language, can transcend their past; people can transcend the pain of the past, the pain of division. In the end we can heal. We just have to find the road to belonging, the road to where we think we ought to be. That’s why I made the film.
Because I’m a parent. I’ve got three daughters. I’ve got two sons too. But my daughters were very much on my mind as I made this film. I wanted to make a family film, I suppose. I’ve dealt with, in some of my films, tough subjects. And I’ve done some straight entertainment. I wanted to make a family film that you could bring your children to, and it would feel like a healing story.
Referring to his earlier comments about the western’s themes being in conversation with today, how does he see the film being relevant to the things we’re seeing in the headlines today?
I want to preface it by saying you should never start a film—you should never try to tell a story by having in the back of your mind, “I’m going to tell this story so that you think x or you think y.” If you do that, you’re not telling a story, you’re lecturing people, you know? You have to start by which character do I really love, or characters that I want to spend time with? Which characters am I really interested in their destinies and what they want and where they need to get to? What story is really going to entertain me? What can I do to make this film an experience that will reward anyone who gives you the privilege of spending two hours of their time? That’s how you have to start if you want to tell a story and engage with people. In many ways that really what brought me to the film.
In Kidd, I loved the character of Kidd, because he exists, of course, before television or movies and all the rest of it. But how he approaches his world is how I think of storytelling, in my business. When he starts, he says “I want to take you away from your hard lives, just for an hour or two.” He’s going to tell a story and he’s going to entertain them; he’s going to tell them some local news, about things they really need to know. In this case about the meningitis epidemic. Interestingly, when I wrote that, that was well before the pandemic. Now you watch the film…. Of course, in 1870 meningitis and cholera were a daily threat in many many communities. Other than war, pestilence was the next thing.
So, it did become eerily more contemporary as we went along. But you don’t start like that. You start by saying “How can I tell this story in a way that people are going to want to go on that journey with those characters?” And then you have to ask yourself, “What do I want to feel?” I wanted to feel that they got to a healing place. And they do. They were characters who suffered much in their lives separately, and had perhaps not been able to face up to it. This journey is going to enable them individually to face up to what has happened to them and then enable them to move on in this odd family shape at the end, where they’re a family unit, oddly they have become that. I love that about the film. It’s about overcoming divisions, overcoming barriers of language, barriers of experience, and making a new start.
It was noted that Captain Kidd brought the news, Greenglass was asked to comment on the scene where Kidd is in a town where the town boss only wants his version of the news to be read.
Yeah, that’s quite contemporary isn’t it, that? Let me scroll back a little bit. The newsreader is such a great character. Of course, newsreaders, guys who wandered around from town to town reading the news, that really had a gospel root really. In my country, in the UK, those were the Methodist preachers, who emerged. They didn’t go into the churches, because they were non-conforming, but they gave their sermons out in the open air outside. Or course as they went around, from community to community, then later the same in America, they brought the Good News, that’s what they did. Slowly but surely, the Good News would become the news. They’d bring bits of local news, then federal news. So, it emerged with a sort of moral element to it. That’s to do with truth, isn’t it? Reverence for the truth has been deeply, deeply present.
I’m not American, but I’ve had a life long love affair with America. I first came to your great country when I was 18 years old. I love my country and I love America as much. Our countries in a way have a deep historical reverence for the truth. It’s an important concept, I think, in your affairs and ours. Of course, in times of bitter division, as we know in 1870, in the shadow of the Civil War, the concept of the truth was contested. That’s what happened, you know? One of the themes of the piece, I suppose, is Kidd having to confront that and standing up for the truth as he sees it. I think that is true of journalism today. It’s a noble trade, the trade of journalism. It’s vital to a democracy. It’s one of the ways we exchange opinions and express our disagreements. And ideas contend with each other in the public square of our newspapers and television screens. That’s called democracy. There has to be an underlying share idea of the truth. In times of strife, that gets tested. I think it was tested then, and I think it’s being tested right now in my country and in yours—and in many other countries, too, by the way.
He was asked about the spiritual journey he imagined for Captain Kidd, who felt the things that had happened to him were a judgment for things he had done during the Civil War.
I think that Kidd is a character who’s haunted. You learn as the piece goes along that he’s been reading the news for five years since the end of the war. You learn that fairly early on. You learn that he’s got a wife in San Antonio, and you’re not quite sure what the story is with that. His whole demeanor is haunted. He’s haunted and frozen and unable to connect with anybody. He’s just like the Ancient Mariner. He wanders from place to place, doing the best he can with the power of storytelling. But his soul is broken. That’s my reading of it. Slowly, through the burden, the responsibility of this little girl and going on this dangerous journey, slowly but surely, he’s healed; he comes to realize that he has to face his past. The full story is only revealed at the end when you realize that he feels that his wife’s death, the cause of his grief, was a judgment on everything that he had seen and done. I think that’s quite a common feeling people have as they get toward the end of their lives. You reflect upon what happened, and how things went, and you repent of the mistakes you made, and you hope to get to a better place. We all hope for redemption, don’t we? And that’s what Kidd hopes for. In a movie you can give it, maybe in a way in the real life you can’t. You can have a character find the grace that they’re desperately looking for. That’s what you find when he goes back for the little girl at the end.
Continuing on the idea of grief, and including the corporate grief of Texas under Reconstruction, how does one portray the idea of coming out of grief, especially looking at the world today?
The answer is that is what I was thinking about a lot before I started to make this film. You think about your own children, you think about the world they’re coming into as young adults, and you reflect on the divisions and bitterness in the world, and you want it to be better for them. But it’s going to be their journey, of course, to get there. They have to take their own journey, don’t they, to get to their destiny.
When I read this story, of the lonely newsreader, he meets this lost little girl, the kidnapped girl, and takes her back to her surviving family, it spoke to me like the journey itself was a journey out of division into healing, out of grief into grace, if I can use that expression, where you get the opportunity to have a new start, to turn the page, to grow again, to deal with the pain and the grief and look at it in the face and move on. I loved that about the story because I think Kidd feels very much as we are where we are today, all of us. Whatever we think about the world, that doesn’t matter. I think 99.9% of it, in your great country, mine, everywhere, wants better days to come—particularly in this pandemic. So, this film, with these two characters in the middle of Texas 150 years ago seems to me to take us on that journey.
News of the World is available on PVOD now.