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Behind the Scenes of "Captain Phillips'" Best Scene, and Its Worst

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by Sam Adams
April 25, 2014 1:47 PM
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Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips"
Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips"

At Letterboxd, Jason Overbeck, who worked on "Captain Phillips" as an apprentice editor, has a brief but fascinating account of how two of the movie's scenes came together. (Credit to Vadim Rizov for drawing my attention to Overbeck's post.) 

Although he doesn't explicitly frame it as such, the two scenes Overbeck focuses on are the movie's best and its worst: the career-high moment in which Tom Hanks' skipper takes stock of the traumatic ordeal he just barely survived, and the opening conversation between Phillips and his wife, played by Catherine Keener. Although Overbeck wasn't present for the final edit, he did have an opportunity to view the raw footage of both scenes, giving us an unusual degree of insight into what the film's editor, Christopher Rouse, had to work with.

Let's start with the bad, the painfully on-the-nose conversation between Hanks and Keener in which they baldly lay out the themes of the film like a nervous public speaker opening with the outline of the talk he's about to give. According to Overbeck, part of the problem was that director Paul Greengrass wanted the actors to improvise the dialogue, which threw Hanks off his game, his unease compounded by the fact that he was still getting a handle on Phillips' thick Boston accent:

Hanks was uncomfortable working so loosely and was still working out his accent and Greengrass had his own agenda about what the scene should be. In the end, it is a very pieced together scene with a lot of ADR and even still, it doesn't really work. I know there were some early arguments for starting the film with Hanks boarding the Maersk Alabama, which I think was a non-starter because that would have meant cutting Keener completely out of the film and never establishing normalcy for Phillips outside of his career. I bet everyone involves wishes they had a little more money to reshoot that scene, I think it's the biggest flaw in the film.

That "loose" approach, however, paid enormous dividends in the movie's final scene, where Hanks was acting opposite a trained medic with no previous acting experience. 

Tom Hanks and Naval Hospital Corpsman Danielle Albert
Tom Hanks and Naval Hospital Corpsman Danielle Albert

I'm gobsmacked by Hanks' take on post traumatic shock every time I see it, I remember watching the dailies and the first take, the medic kept messing up her take but Hanks guided her through it, reassuring her that she knew what she was doing and she would get over her nerves, I think he told her he was nervous too. Then the very next take was of the level of quality seen in the film (I'm not sure if that was the take used or if it was another one) and I remember tearing up just watching the dailies, with her cold, believable professionalism the perfect foil to the well studied performance he was giving and both of their commitment to what they are doing is just phenomenal and this is the fruit yielded by the way Greengrass works, allowing non-professional and professional to exist together with guidance but also an open forum to try things.

Of all the crafts involved in the making of a film, editing, sometimes called "the invisible art," is the hardest to judge, in large part because without substantial research there's no way to tell what the editor was working with in the first place. But here, at least, we get a brief peek into the editing suite, with most enlightening results.

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