22 July: Paul Greengrass on recreating the 2011 Norway attacks

Paul Greengrass is no stranger to taking on sensitive material.

The English filmmaker has brought a selection of some of the most harrowing real-life events of the past 50 years to the big screen: In 2002, he wrote and directed Bloody Sunday, a film about the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” shootings in Northern Ireland; In 2006 he took audiences inside the hijacking of the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on 9/11 with United 93, and in 2013 he directed the Tom Hanks-starring thriller Captain Phillips that recreated the true story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking. 

Greenglass’ latest offering is 22 July, the dramatization of the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway where Anders Behring Breivik packed a van full of thousands of pounds of explosives, parked it in front of a government building in central Oslo, and left it to explode, killing eight people. As the bomb detonated, Breivik drove to a summer camp on Utoya Island run by the government’s Labor Party. Dressed in police uniform and informing the camp workers he was there to secure the island after the terrorist attack, he tricked his way onto Utoya where he methodically opened fire on the camp attendees — the majority of whom were under the age of 18. He massacred 69 people on the island in addition to the eight he’d already killed with the bomb, and injured many more.

Based on the 2013 book One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by journalist Asne Seierstad, 22 July traces the events of that 2011 day more or less in real time, but dedicates the majority of the movie to the attack’s aftermath. We witness the agonizing recovery of 16-year-old survivor Viljar Hanssen (played by newcomer Jonas Strand Gravli), who suffered five gunshot wounds and ultimately testified against Breivik in court, as well as the road to Breivik’s (Anders Danielsen Lie) trial — where we learn he detests how his country welcomes refugees and foreigners and wants to restore Norway to a purer state — and the response of the Norwegian prime minister (Ola G. Furuseth), who wants to understand how such a thing could happen in his country.

Despite Greengrass’ experience in confronting the most difficult of topics, the director has become no less meticulous in his approach to making them into movies. EW caught up with the filmmaker to better understand the thought process and awareness that goes into bringing a such a profound and recent horror (the magnitude of which Norway hadn’t confronted since the Second World War) to the screen without giving a platform to the destructive and devastating views of its real-life villain in the process.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to make the events of July 22 into a movie?
PAUL GREENGRASS: Like everyone, I’m a little concerned with the way the world’s going right now, with this rising tide of hard right politics that you can see everywhere. So I decided to make a film about it and that led me to look at the story of Norway because of what Breivik did but also more importantly – which I think is what the film’s about – the story of how Norway fought for her democracy. It was ultimately a very inspiring story and one with lessons for all of us. Of course democracy’s not a given, it has to be fought for and certainly in Norway that’s really the story: how young people, how families, how lawyers, politicians fought to preserve democracy against this threat — that’s really the story.

Was that concern for the way the world’s leaning the reason you felt like now was the right time to make this movie? Some people might argue it’s too close to the attack to bring it to the movie theater.
It’s a bit like United 93 — the people who rightfully decide whether it’s the right time or the wrong time are the families directly affected. If you make these [kind of movies], you go and ask their permission and that’s what I did with this group. They strongly supported the making of the film because they, more than any other group of people, understand what the threat is and want to warn the rest of us because they lived through it.

So the families were very involved in the process?
Yeah, I consulted with them, but ultimately the film has to speak for itself. We took it to show them months ago and they’ve been incredibly supportive of the film and supportive of us making it and supportive of the end result.

And there’s wasn’t any backlash?
Not from the families, not at all. On the contrary, they’ve offered very profound support, which has been very moving for all of us.

How do you go about representing someone like Breivik without overly demonizing him or giving him, and his beliefs, too much of a platform?
That’s something I definitely thought a lot about before I made the film. What was instructive about Norway was that they had that debate: Do we face him or do we shut him away and not let him speak? In the end, they took the view that he had to be confronted and he had to be allowed to speak in order to be confronted, and that, to me, felt like one of the lessons that Norway gives us: We can’t pretend that these views and the people who believe these views aren’t there and that they’re not spreading fast. To lock the barn door when the building’s on fire seems to me not the right thing to do. You have to fight the fire. You have to look at it, acknowledge that it’s there and then fight it, and I think that’s the lesson of Norway. In the end, the story of the film does not give him a platform, it just looks clearly at him and acknowledges Norway and acknowledges that he is a dedicated right-wing extremist who’s part of a subculture of people who think like he thinks and that’s growing fast. But that was confronted and that’s ultimately what the film’s about. It’s meant to be an inspiring portrait and one that defeats him. He’s not given the platform, he’s defeated; defeated morally and intellectually and emotionally.

And how encouraging that part of his defeat comes at the hands of the youth, the voices of the future.
Exactly. When you see what those young people did in Parkland, it’s kind of similar. There’s a similar quality: Young people stepping up to the plate to find what sort of world they want to live in. I think we’re going to be seeing more of that. Our children will beat you and their children will beat you.

The hardest scene to watch in the movie is the shooting scene, when Breivik opens fire on the children. How did you approach that so as it keep it authentic but not overly gratuitous?
There were two threshold issues that I had to think about before I made the film. The first one we just discussed is when you’re making this film you run the risk of giving this man and his views a platform. The second thing is, can you make a film like this about events that are so heinous and upsetting and be truthful about them and yet not create images that are so distressing to who’s going to go and see it? It’s the Schindler’s List problem. You do it when you feel what you’re doing has moral seriousness. You do it with great restraints, profound restraint and you do it in consultation with the people affected. How to handle the violence was probably the most discussed issue and the families had very clear views. At one meeting, a guy spoke up and he said he strongly supported making the film but said, “You will be doing a disrespect to me and to my daughter who’s no longer here if you sanitize the violence. People have to understand what happened because this is a track that we’re all facing now. On the other hand, you’re also being doing a disrespect to me and my daughter if you exploit the violence, if you’re gratuitous about it. If you take on the film you’re going to have to make sense of those two and plot a course between them.” One of the things I was most heartened by when they all saw the film was that we had strong support for the way the attacks were handled. It’s a disturbing sequence but there’s very little gratuitous violence. I think it’s handled with great restraint. I tried to get the balance. The balance was very forcefully and wisely laid out for me.

One other issue I had to think about before making the film was the entertainment dilemma. I thought about that very clearly because I believe in the power of entertainment and I believe in cinema’s mission to entertain. I think it’s a great and noble mission and always has been since the birth of cinema and I like to think I’ve made a few films along the way that people have found hugely entertaining. But I also think that, from time to time, films have to dare to just look at the world and that’s a different thing. I think audiences understand it’s different. It’s part of what makes cinema a broad offering; there’s movies that you buy a box of popcorn and you love on a Saturday night and that’s great. Audiences also know that there are films which are trying to engage with how the world is — not by slanting it because that would be propaganda — but by daring to look truthfully at the world and see what that says to you. That’s part of what keeps cinema alive. That commits it to the real world. I saw it very much as a sister film to United 93.

You cast Norwegian actors who speak in accented English throughout. Can you talk about that decision? Did you consider having them speak in Norwegian with subtitles?
I really had no thought to do it in Norwegian because I don’t speak a word of the language, so if we’d made it in Norwegian it would have been a different director. Norway’s a bilingual society — everyone speaks English quite fluently. It was about bringing Norway’s story to the wider world so we did it in English. Then if I shot it in Norway with a Norwegian cast and crew, the film would have a Norwegian identity and be a Norwegian film. In many ways my job was just to help them tell their story. In terms of casting, I can’t think of a film that’s been easier to cast, actually. They’ve got such wonderful actors and, of course, they all remember where they were when it happened. Many of them knew people involved in the attacks or knew people who knew people. It’s a very small country so it meant for a very committed company of actors supported, of course, by the crew and that gave the making of the film a special atmosphere; a special sense of purpose.

Let’s talk about casting Anders Danielsen Lie as Breivik. That can’t be a role anyone takes on lightly.
Anders is one of Norway’s most loved actors and that made his responsibility all the greater. He felt very strongly that he should do it. He felt it was important to confront the reality of who Breivik was without painting him as a monster but without sympathizing with him either, just daring to look at him and see what looking at him tells us because his beliefs are spreading dynamically across the west, lots and lots of people think like he thinks. Of course they wouldn’t necessarily do what he did, though the violent far right is also growing fast and that’s a real challenge because we’re not talking about normal political opposition. This whole populist right wing thing sits at the far right of politics and some of it is within democratic parameters and some of it, a lot of it, an increasing amount of it, is anti-democratic. It’s outside the parameters of normal political debate and it’s fast growing…and it wants to sweep democracy away.

How did he prepare for the role?
The police made all the interrogations available to us and I remember Anders watched much more than I did. Breivik was so utterly normal, utterly ordinary, so utterly committed to his cause but so entirely un-flamboyant about it. He could’ve been anyone that you or I know. That was what was so interesting about the Breivik case in Norway… They had to confront the fact that he wasn’t mad. Of course he had a difficult family background but not to that point. In the end, what they had to confront was his beliefs. He believed what was his radicalization of a right-wing violent extreme. That was the frightening thing. When you get anger out there and resentment and a sense of betrayal, people start to give up on democracy and start to think there are other ways forward and that’s when we get the problems that our parents and grandparents lived through.

22 July is available to stream on Netflix now.

Related content: 

  • Paul Greengrass’ 22 July turns a real-life act of terror into a discomforting film: EW review
  • Why Parkland survivors David and Lauren Hogg brought their activism to a book

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