In the fury of awards season, great films that arrived with strong buzz and critical plaudits can get lost if they arrived earlier in the year. One film that was released in October, but still holds on with strong sea legs is “Captain Phillips” (it’s scored recent DGA, PGA and Golden Globe nominations). Directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks, this in-the-moment thriller is a harrowing drama based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged Maersk Alabama.
The movie also boasts the debut screen appearance of Barkhad Abdi, the lead Somali pirate in the movie before who had never acted professionally before in his life. As reviews and awards from the critical season will attest (our review here), Abdi is a revelation and he gives as good as he gets alongside Hanks. While there’s an excellent supporting cast, including three more unknown Somali actors and several character actors on the Alabama, the movie is almost a two-hander; a test of wills between two men and their different manifestations of desperation. Our interview traversed all things "Captain Phillips," the origins of the screenplay, working with Abdi, the raw and unrehearsed post-traumatic syndrome sequence and the search for behavioral truth that informed the film every step of the way.
You guys both get a lot of scripts and projects across your desks that you have to weigh, what is it about the material in this that attracted you both?
Greengrass: Well for me Tom was already involved so that was a big plus for me. It was a great story; it was very fresh as far as landscape. I liked the idea of a pirate story, make it real world pirates, not Hollywood pirates and also my Dad was in the Merchant Marines and at sea all his life so I grew up in that world. So it was an opportunity to make a film about that as well.
Hanks: I was lucky that Paul was the guy that made the movie. We had spoken about almost working together on a couple of other occasions, but it didn't work out. I was familiar with the story before I read it the screenplay adaptation by Billy Ray. But when I read it—I had never seen a movie like this, it was very straight forward on one front. Pirates climb aboard and kidnap Richard and hold him hostage and all the rest plays out as we know from the non-fiction accounts of it. But that simplicity is incredibly complex in the inner workings of certainly the character of Richard Phillips, but then also in the character of [the main Somali pirate] Muse. On the one hand this is really just kind of like a mano-y-mano go at it but it ends up being ... I knew there was going to be a substantial amount of interior monologue type of stuff that went on that was going to make for a movie that I had not seen before.
There's a lot of texture to chew on underneath the thriller surface, is that kind of also what drew you to the material, Paul?
Greengrass: Yeah, in the end it was really the characters. One, a Captain of a modern container ship from our world and the other, a kind of young delinquent; Captain of a pirate ship with an AK47 and nothing to lose. That battle of wills and contest was really the heart of the beast. So that was always very clear to me that it was incredibly captivating. It was a fresh world, it was a great thriller, it was very connected. It was very accessible, but it had this wonderful kind of character commissioned at the heart of it. And I thought if we made it in a certain way we could illuminate the broader landscape of the fast globalizing world because that is the world of the ships that hold the boxes. They're basically traversing the globe, back and forth and so on and so forth. Piracy sort of attacks them, it's a threat to the new global economic order, that's why we take it so seriously. That's why it's so difficult to deal with because it goes to the heart of a system that everybody's been locked out of. But you've got to deal with the film, not as narrative and character, that stuff takes care of itself. [The socio-political ramifications], you don't want to speak to or underline, but you hope it's there at the end of the film. It sort of bleeds into it.
Right. I was going to say there's a lot of it that's really implicit. You humanized the villain, but it's definitely not at all overt.
Greengrass: I hope not. I mean we worked really hard not to make it. You want it to be complex and layered, but also conversely, it's a bit of a paradox but you want it to be absolutely clear in the writing. When you get a clue you get the layers of complexity along the way, that's when a film gets interesting.
Tom, you'd actually met the real Captain Phillips, right? What was your one take away from him?
Hanks: Mostly he's a very pragmatic veteran. Being a Captain of a merchant marine vessel, it holds no glamor for him, it's literally his workaday world. All routine. It looks like it has the glamour of the unknown but this is a guy who three times a year goes off and flies to some third world country, gets on board one of these ships and maintains it for the better part of over three months. So the routine that goes along with that he has to maintain is really the type of guy that you get. He's very practical, he's very pragmatic, he had had experiences in other parts of his career in which he truly did fear for his life, mostly like a hurricane at sea and a fire that was on board a ship.
Not to take away from the idea of four guys threatening him with AK47s. It's nothing to sneeze at. He was very much in tune with the idea that on board a ship an awful lot of things can go wrong all the time. There is very little that has happened that you haven't seen before. And then in this case there were at least human beings he got to interact with, so he wasn't absolutely helpless. He was smart in that way and he was experienced. He doesn't view himself as any sort of great hero. He doesn't think what he went through necessarily deserves a lot of attention he knows that he was a guy who was waiting for heroes to show up in order to get him out of that mess. He's a very straight forward guy who knows that the six days he went through were filled with an awful lot of boredom, with occasional journeys into terror. He knows the difference.