It was not long ago that people would talk of Paul Greengrass as one of the most exciting TV directors of his generation. Now, in an amazingly short space of time, he is one of the most exciting Hollywood directors of his generation, trusted by studio chiefs to spend their millions in the best way he sees fit.
Greengrass, born in Cheam, south London, was this week nominated for a best director Oscar. For some his documentary-style re-enactment of the hijacking of flight United 93 was the best film of last year, albeit one of the most harrowing. The film critic of the London-based Guardian, Peter Bradshaw was not alone when he wrote that he had difficulty breathing while watching it. Greengrass' previous film was a franchise blockbuster, The Bourne Supremacy, with Matt Damon as the CIA-trained assassin with a conscience, Jason Bourne. Now Greengrass is filming the third Bourne film, The Bourne Ultimatum, entrusted by Universal with an eye-popping US$125m budget. And it was announced on Wednesday that his next project will be Imperial Life in the Emerald City, based on the book about life in Baghdad's green zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.
He may look scruffy, with his laid-back demeanor and straggly hair, but he is, in Hollywood terms, a major player.
Tim Bevan, United 93's producer and co-founder of Working Title Films, believes we have not yet seen the best of Greengrass. "I think he will get better and better. He's gone from zero to hero very quickly — he's now A-list Hollywood. Hollywood was probably surprised by how well he did with Bourne Supremacy, and then they saw United 93 and they can see the directorial artistry behind it."
Greengrass' ultra-realistic style of film making is very much based on his documentary background: he worked for 10 years on Britain's Granada TV's World in Action team after graduating from Cambridge University. But he was catapulted into the world spotlight not for filmmaking but for book writing.
Greengrass had been sent to New Zealand to track down the former assistant director of British counter-intelligence (MI5) Peter Wright after Anthony Blunt was exposed as a Soviet spy, and he ended up co-authoring Wright's memoirs. Spycatcher became notorious for the British government's attempts to ban it rather than for its contents.
From there Greengrass quickly moved into feature film directing. His first film, Resurrected, starring David Thewlis as a soldier left behind in the Falklands, won acclaim at the Berlin film festival.
There followed a steady and growing career as one of the UK's best directors — there was the odd episode of Kavanagh QC on TV, but also films including The Theory of Flight, starring Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter (one of the rare times when he put a foot wrong). It was his dramatizations The Murder of (black London teenager) Stephen Lawrence and then Bloody Sunday (followed by Omagh, which he co-wrote and produced) which made people take even more notice of him. Three immensely powerful films, so good that it seemed strange they were being shown on ITV.
After that Hollywood came knocking and he has admitted that the decision to direct The Bourne Supremacy in 2004 was not a difficult one. "I wanted to have an adventure in films, to do something completely different. You just think it would be fun to do a car chase."