Matt Damon takes on Iraq in Green Zone

Green Zone

British director Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon have teamed up again to take on the case of the missing WMDs, in Green Zone, released in cinemas on Friday March 12. The pair talk about the challenges of filming the high-octane Iraq-based thriller.

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 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 film, 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, in a quick interview at London's Dorchester Hotel, before flying back to Los Angeles.

"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 Matt 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 Green Zone, about the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) during the invasion of Iraq.

"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 around 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 own superiors.

Matt 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.

Matt'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 were 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 Matt. "He came from a military family and he's very proud of his service."

He describes his first meeting with Monty, when he asked him what it was really like on the WMD trail:

"Monty had all of these intel packets and 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."

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

Matt 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."

With Chilcot's Iraq war inquiry still in full swing on this side of the Atlantic, the film is timely. But are cinemagoers necessarily looking for such a big dose of reality in these troubled times?

"People go to the movies for very different reasons," concedes Greengrass, "to escape into a fantasy world, to experience love and romance, or to laugh, but across the waterfront of movies in any given year, some of your major pieces should engage directly and feel fuelled by what's really going on out there.

"In the end, it's me and Matt, the greatest movie star in the world, people know the sort of films we've made, with a central character with a really strong and noble agenda... and I think people will come."

Massachusetts-born Matt though, is not so sure the film will play out so well in America, where Iraq is lower down the priority list.

"There's a very different atmosphere right now, if you engaged 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 as it is here because you've got the Chilcot inquiry.

"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."

The final word goes to director Greengrass. Does he think George Bush and Tony Blair, who believed there were WMDs in Iraq, should see the film?

"I'm sure Mr Bush and Mr Blair would find it extremely exciting and dramatic," he says, tongue firmly in cheek. "In fact, I might see if I can set up a screening for them."