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Saturday 16 December 2017

Damon is in the zone in Baghdad

Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass tell Kate Whiting their third film will appeal to fans ready for a dose of reality

While Matt Damon may not have won an Oscar, at least he got a night off from his typically break-neck schedule. The 39-year-old actor is more in demand than ever, having just finished filming with Clint Eastwood for a second time, in London, and due to start working with the Coen Brothers on their remake of the classic Western, True Grit.

"I want to direct someday and I can't really pass up the chance to work with the people I'm getting to work with," he says.

"I've worked with Paul Greengrass three times now, and Clint twice, and Steven Soderbergh five or six times, and the Coen brothers [this month]. As long as that keeps happening, I can't see myself taking time off, unless the work dried up."

It's because of his third collaboration with Brit Paul Greengrass that Damon is here today, dressed in a simple black jumper and sitting next to the shaggy-haired director.

Their first two films, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, parts two and three in the Jason Bourne trilogy, were so successful, they're hoping the same magic will work for their new work Green Zone, about the search for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) during the invasion of Iraq.



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"The audience that loved the Bourne films was the audience that was being asked to fight that war, and it was from that audience that people were opposed to that war," says Greengrass, "So you had two ends of the spectrum.

"They were attracted to those films because they liked a high-octane, adrenaline thrill, but also because the attitude of the films was, 'I need to find the truth'.

"It seemed we had an opportunity to ask that audience to take one step through the curtain back to the real world, back to the intrigue-filled, conspiracy-laden weeks before and immediately after the invasion."

The film is based on the non-fiction book, Imperial Life In The Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, by journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran. It centres on US army officer Roy Miller who leads a team hunting for WMDs, but when several sites turn out to be empty, his suspicions lead him to question his superiors.

Damon was instantly attracted to the idea of playing a fictional character in the real world: "I didn't have to be persuaded, it just seemed like such fertile ground to make a film from," he says with his famous shy smile.

Damon's character was based on the film's advisor, chief warrant officer Richard 'Monty' Gonzales, who led Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha on the hunt for WMDs back in 2003.

Both are the same age and had been at high school at the same time, but had taken very different directions: "I graduated and went to college, he graduated and went into the army," says Damon. "He came from a military family and he's very proud of his service."

He describes his first meeting with Gonzales, when he asked him what it was really like on the WMD trail: "Monty, unlike Miller who says in the movie, 'This is the fourth time this has happened', after coming up empty, Monty said the very first factory they went into, he was sure that something horribly wrong had happened.

"It was listed as a dual-use facility, so in other words, it was a porcelain factory but it was hiding the fact that it really was making something else and Monty, once they got in there, he took one look at it and said, 'Nobody could stand inside this building and say it was being used for anything but making porcelain'.

"I asked him why are you participating in this experience, what do you want to get out it? And he said, 'We've lost our moral authority'. I think at some level, that's the question that everyone's been asking themselves since 2003."

As with the Bourne films and Greengrass's 9/11 film United 93, Green Zone is told through shaky, handheld camera footage and much of the action unfolds in real time.

Damon says, as an actor, he enjoys working in such a way because it keeps him focussed.

"Normally you're restricted by your camera, by the 11-minute film load. What they did was have a back-up camera, so you'd go for 11 minutes and when one camera would dump, they'd pick up another one and keep going," he explains.

"That allowed the actors and non-actors [soldiers and children] to stay in this heightened reality, without everybody breaking down and going to get a cup of tea or going to the bathroom."

Are cinemagoers necessarily looking for such a big dose of reality in these troubled times?

"There's a very different atmosphere right now, if you engage any American in a discussion about war, Afghanistan is probably what's going to come up first. The issues of the economy and jobs are what most people are thinking about, so Iraq isn't on the front page.

"Whether or not it's at the forefront of everybody's consciousness at home right now, there will certainly be an appetite for this type of film whether it's when it opens or sometime later than that.

"We can never predict what the zeitgeist is going to be two years down the road, but we got to make the movie that we wanted to make, so hopefully the studio will be rewarded for their faith in us."

Green Zone is in cinemas

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