In “News of the World”, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) meets an 11-year-old orphaned girl (Helena Zengel) who lost her German and Native American families. This Civil War veteran – who is now a newsreader traveling across Texas – decides that he will take Johanna (Zengel) to her aunt and uncle’s home in Castroville in writer/director Paul Greengrass’ affecting, soulful western.
“News of the World” is a reunion for Greengrass and Hanks because they made “Captain Phillips” in 2013. That film’s screenwriter Billy Ray hosted a Zoom call Q&A with Paul, Tom, and Helena. ArtHouseFilmWire wasn’t part of the interview, but Universal Pictures graciously shared the link with us!
Tom discussed the positives about shooting his first western, Helena reminisced about her approach to the role, and Paul explained the origins of newsreaders. The three spoke about much more in this wonderfully insightful interview.
“News of the World” is playing in theatres and is also available to stream at home, and Helena just earned a Golden Globe Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work as Johanna!
Q: “News of the World” is set in the west, but is it, for you, a western?
PG: I grew up with westerns. I watched “Bonanza” as a kid on Saturday nights (in the U.K.). You can say (this movie) is in the west, but it’s a post-Civil War film. In the end, it’s the story of a lonely newsreader who lost everything, who wanders Texas in the aftermath of the Civil War. He comes upon the girl, and they go on an adventure, a journey out of dark times towards something hopeful. That, for me, made it incredibly contemporary and affecting.
TH: Outside of the standard things that go along with the genre – wagons, horses, and kerosene lamps – (this movie) is no different than the stuff that goes along with any film. Westerns, if you are going to talk about them as (a genre), (have) a lot of arguments against them, (including) worldwide box office. The (things) that westerns have for them (are) some brand of gunplay and justice against long odds.
That wasn’t nearly as interesting as what we had in hand, which is the story of Captain Kidd and young Johanna, the timeless theme of very damaged people becoming better because they have come across each other and the friendship that forms between them.
What I liked about the (movie) being a western is the lack of technology made immediacy a real plot point. You couldn’t get from here to there very quickly. The news that Captain Kidd (reads) is weeks or sometimes even months old because that’s how long it (takes) information about the Brooklyn Bridge to get from New York City all the way down to Dallas. You’re always looking for obstacles that can keep the story from happening too (easily).
In that regard, the western (is) absolutely fantastic, that along with this great truth: you can get an awful lot of people to almost volunteer to work on a western because they’re outdoors. The demands are so specific. It’s just different. You’re out in nature, and I just ended up liking the slower, plodding pace. You can’t get from Point A to Point B any faster than our horse Wimpy would walk.
Q: Helena, you’re sitting in Berlin one day, and someone shows you a script called “News of the World”. What do you think when you first read it? Johanna doesn’t speak English or understand Captain Kidd.
HZ: I was excited to do it. I read the script, (and) I thought it was going to be pretty hard to play because you (have to say the lines) with your eyes. It wasn’t that easy sometimes to take the emotions and show them with your eyes. You really want (the audience) to read your mind when you don’t talk because (Johanna) unfortunately (doesn’t). It’s very interesting to play the role and to learn the Kiowa language. When you Google it, you won’t get a translator for the language. Nobody (speaks) it anymore.
(It was great) to get to know the Kiowa elder, Paul, and Tom. I saw “Captain Phillips”, and for a German actress, Hollywood is a goal (that) you will never reach, especially at my age. So, it was a dream when I read the script. I was very excited to meet Paul, (but) my English wasn’t as good, so I was like, “OK, everyone, I don’t understand anything.” It was ridiculous, (but) I was very excited, and to go to Hollywood was something that I never imagined.
TH: Were you glad that you were making a movie when “System Crasher” (2019) came out because you didn’t get to go off and really embrace it? You had to come to work every day, sit with me, and listen to Paul, when back in Germany and Europe, everybody was talking about you.
HZ: Yea, I thought it would be nice to be in Germany, but on the other side, it was good to be somewhere else because I knew a lot (was) going on. (In) my hometown, there were so many posters with me. My friends texted me every day. It may have been a little bit weird if I had seen my friends every day, but I was excited to get a new movie. Back then, I’ve never (been) in the U.S. My mom was, so I always dreamt (of getting) to the U.S. and (seeing a) whole other part of the world.
Q: What do you think is broken in Captain Kidd? Had he not found Johanna, what would’ve happened to that man?
TH: Paul and I talked about this constantly. Everything about your character, backstory-wise, is something (that) you can only carry around in your pocket. It can only be this burden or weight that you bring into every scene because there’s not a lot of ways to dramatize it. With this guy coming across this young girl, Paul was able to find (the) verbiage that (Kidd) did not necessarily want to communicate. Captain Kidd (didn’t) want to talk about his past (and) didn’t want to face up to the terror and the loss that he’d been through 10 years prior.
Captain Kidd is not a young man. To have his latter life completely ripped apart, I felt as though he wanted to sneak into town, do his bit, and sneak right out, leaving as little a ripple as possible. Had (Kidd) not stumbled upon this task at hand, I think he would’ve shriveled up and died in nothingness. He was born again thanks to the connection and dare we call it – and this is the timeless aspect of (the movie) – love that he ends up feeling for another human being and is felt for him.
His loneliness and his solitude were the same thing. For a healthy human being, that’s not the case. Solitude is good for you; loneliness will cripple you. I think he was crippled, and he had been for the better part of 10 years before this young lady came along and brought him back to life because of her need. She needed to be taken care of, and it had been an awfully long time since Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd had taken care of anybody.
PG: All of the profound and tragic events have occurred before the film starts. Captain Kidd and Johanna both had intensely dramatic and tragic pasts. The temptation was: do you show (their pasts)? Do you start flashing back? If this (is) a film about finding hope, to show the past felt like a cheap shot. You just understand it as they came to confront it, almost wordlessly actually, because they never – apart from one very brief exchange – discussed what’s happened to them, each of them. They are both going on this journey together to restore each other.
Q: Had Johanna never met Captain Kidd, what would’ve happened to her?
HZ: I don’t think she would have died because she’s too smart and self-confident. I think she would’ve found a way to survive. It would have definitely been very hard for her (though) because being alone as an 11-year-old girl in the desert at that time was very dangerous. It wouldn’t have been very easy, (and) she probably wouldn’t be as happy.
Q: There seems to be a moment when Johanna starts to trust Captain Kidd. When was that moment for you? Was that something you were always playing towards, or did you figure it out as you went along?
HZ: I think it’s a mix of both. There was one part when Captain Kidd and Johanna start to explain their languages on the wagon. They get to know their habits, their way of thinking. Johanna also tries to explain to him that she thinks about (life as a) circle: to think about what (happened) in the past and then move on. He says, “No, you got to forget what is in the past and move on directly.”
I think that’s the moment (when) they trust each other.
Q: Paul, what makes you decide that “News of the World” is a movie that you want to write as well as direct
PG: Happenstance, really. Making movies is quite like making music. It’s fun to play with different musicians, because your music is different. Sometimes you want to make a solo album because there’s something you’ve got to say. I had the great privilege of working in Hollywood, and before I came, I used to write and make tiny movies which (cost) about $4.60, maybe $.65, if I was lucky. One of the interesting things about coming to work in big (movies) was the interchangeability. You direct, you write. Tom directs, writes, produces, and acts. You make tea sometimes, don’t you, Tom?
TH: I do!
Q: Helena, during the shootout in the hills, Captain Kidd tells you, “Run. Save yourself. Just get out of here.” What do you think made Johanna stay?
HZ: First of all, she didn’t want to be alone. The scene is not (at the end), but it’s getting closer to the end, so they already started to know each other. She doesn’t tell (Captain Kidd), but I think she likes him and appreciates him. There are some moments where you see that she’s very grateful for him. Also, Johanna is smart. If he dies, she (knows) that it (won’t) be good for her either.
Q: In one scene, Captain Kidd uses the news or the truth to stir a group of laborers. It has such echoes for today about news and truth, and what they can do to incite people, good or bad. Do you think for Kidd, the news became his version of preaching?
TH: In that, the news is the truth. We didn’t plan on making a movie with themes ripped out of today’s headlines. We were taking the concept of reading the news from this perspective: There are no such things as alternative facts. There are interpretations of facts, but the truth is the truth. You can’t alter the temperature of the sun, nor the speed of the water, nor the numbers of people who are dying because of a scarlet fever.
The fever that a preacher will have, I think, is to liberate the enslaved – either cosmically, physically, theoretically, (or) spiritually – with an undeniable truth. Once you grasp it, it can’t be bent. In that scene particularly, (Kidd talked) about the dynamics between the haves and the have-nots. An awful lot of times in stories, it comes down to behavior and procedure.
(In) that scene, Kidd was saying, “I’m not powerless here, because I know the behavior of a crowd, and I know the procedure (for them) to reach their better selves.”
That is a discussion of a trope that nobody can deny. So, he does have a lot of the same calling cards of an itinerant preacher with LOVE on one fist and HATE on another one, like Robert Mitchum in (“The Night of the Hunter” (1955)), but I think (Kidd) has LOVE on both fists, maybe LOVE and TRUTH.
PG: The roots of the traveling news readers lay in the nonconformist preachers. It started in the U.K. in the 17th century. Nonconformist preachers were not allowed to preach in churches, so they came to town squares and old farms, and they (preached) to the masses. They would bring the good news. Over time, that became a feature of American life. Slowly the “good” dropped out, and it became the news.
One of the things I loved about (costume designer) Mark Britches’ wonderful work is the black coat that (Kidd) wore at the readings. It made him slightly an authority figure, but he was one of the crowd. He knew those people. He came from them, but when he came to town for that one hour, that was entertainment. You didn’t get anything else. There wasn’t television or social media in 1870 in Texas.
TH: And he put on a good show. He made sure the people got 10 cents of quality entertainment.
Image and Trailer credits: Universal Pictures