Paul Greengrass’ harrowing, real-time thriller, “Captain Phillps” just screened at the New York Film Festival yesterday. Just go and hit Twitter and you’re going to see plaudits, raves and yes, even lots of Oscar talk. It’s a terrific piece of filmmaking that's intense, grueling, deeply immersive and even takes pains to humanize the complex lives of its villains (you can read yours truly’s A-grade review right here).
Starring Tom Hanks as Richard Phillips, the real life Captain whose Maersk Alabama ship was besieged by Somali pirates in 2009 and then kidnapped after it all went wrong, Greengrass—who directed two ‘Bourne’ films, the tense Iraq War drama “Green Zone” and the 9/11 drama “United 93”—uses the same investigative and probing documentary-like approach in “Captain Phillips.” It is nerve-racking stuff that makes you feel utterly helpless and captive too. Hanks is fantastic in the film (here comes his sixth nomination without a doubt), but as many are already noting, the film’s co-starring lead Barkhad Abdi, as the lead Somali bandit, is a tremendous revelation.
After the NYFF screening yesterday, Hanks, Greengrass and Abdi met the press to discuss in detail their visceral and sometimes traumatic real-life thriller. Here’s highlights.
Paul Greengrass on balancing the responsibility to real life characters, but being true to the conventions of dramatic filmmaking.
You do have a responsibility for sure. But there's a spectrum to real life events. You can dramatize them loosely or closely and it's up to the director to set the parameters. With my background I'm much more interested in being closer. But if you take these events, it took place over four or five days, you've got the challenge – how to compress the events but stay true to the fundamentals. And I think we did. The fundamentals are on screen.
Tom Hanks spent a lot of time with the real Captain Phillips
I read his book prior to reading his screenplay and I got together with him on two occasions. And I told him that I would [likely] say things you never said and be places you never were but if we do this right we'll be thematically spot-on with the nature of him. Environmentally, it's a very specific movie, we shot in a ship identical to the Alabama and on the sea. So the task and folding ourselves into Paul's good hands is always to be true to the motivations to everyone who are involved. You start manufacturing emotions that weren't a part of the [events and] that's when you get in trouble. Thematically, it is what happened. It's tricky and it could get away from you but we were always searching for that combination of procedure and behavior that wasn't just reminiscent but reflective of what happened. And that's very tough when you're telling nonfiction entertainment.
Greengrass says telling the crew's tale was important as well.
One of the [challenges] was that Phillips was in charge of a crew of 25 men who went through this experience. Obviously, Richard Phillips' was the worst because he was taken off the ship but what we tried to convey is to not forget the crew and the role that they played, both as individuals and a number of the crew members played in the unfolding events. One of the things I'm most proud of is that you sense the crew moving as one, with different individuals playing different roles at once. It's hard to follow 25 destinies in one film. But you definitely do, get the sense of the overall role played by the other crew members.
Hanks describes the emotionally harrowing last five minutes of the film [mild, but vague spoilers]
I'll tell the story. It's a moment like I've never had while making a film. It's not on the page at all. We had actually shot the screenplay out as Phillips' perspective. And we had a scene that was sort of like that in there and it was fine. But we had the actual Captain of the [ship that rescued Phillips] when we were filming. And we asked what happened. And he said, "We took him to the infirmary because he was a mess." And Paul said, "Let's take a look." So we went down there and had the crew of the ship and Paul asked what they'd do. Paul said, "Can we do this?" Barry put up some lights. We shot it four or five times and to me what was extraordinary about it was Paul's willingness to try it. There are a lot of motion pictures where you don't have room in the schedule to do it or have the sensibility to try and do it. And the crew of the infirmary didn't think they were going to be in the movie. This goes back to the behavior and procedure aspect – there is a procedure that you can believe in and a behavior that follows that. The first time, it didn't work, because the people couldn't get past that they were in a movie. After that, the people were pretty amazing, especially the woman, and they just ran through what it is. All you can say is that it worked.
Greengrass: You left out the most important bit, which is what you did.
Hanks: But just the freedom to give it a shot was really liberating. Everyone was up for it.
Greengrass further expounds on this post-traumatic sequence [a sequence that is genuinely one of the most striking scenes of the year]
Interestingly, thinking about that scene goes to the heart – acting is many things. Acting is playing lines of course but it's much more profound than that. Acting is true telling. And trying to find the truth in a human situation that will be stretched out by a screenwriter. But that's just the journey. The actor's job is to divine and embody the truth. And that day was an exercise in that. We shot a scene upstairs and we both realized that it wasn't "the scene." When we went down to the infirmary, you could feel something. I asked Tom, "Could you feel something?" And he said, "Yeah everyone was being nice to me. After 16 weeks of people putting guns in my face." With great actors, of which Tom is obviously one, there's a door, with a tiny gap, and it takes a great actor to get through that gap to the truth. There's a shocking sense of humanity and that is an actor finding the truth. You have to seize moments like that.
Greengrass on humanizing the villains and their plight.
And I say the same about Barkhad. There's a great challenge in the film – how do you present young men who are in it for mayhem and violence – you don't sentimentalize it, you stay true to the moral aspect of it, which is dark and dangerous, and find the humanity in that. When I think about it in years to come, I will think about these two men, head-to-head, in this intense psychological study. I think they are performances of great profundity and truthfulness.
The difficulties of shooting at sea.
Barkhad: It wasn't as easy as it looked. I didn't even know how to swim. At times I would get sea sick. That little lifeboat don't smell that good.
Hanks: There was one day when we were in the actual lifeboat in Malta and anybody who wasn't an actor got sea sick. First the focus puller disappeared, then Barry Ackroyd [the cinematographer] disappeared… We got to slow down and close our eyes. It's much more like an amusement park ride being on the open water at sea. But when you drop ten or twelve feet on the open ocean, that's when you have a problem.
Greengrass: I was on the camera boat next door and the message came through on the walkie talkie. "We got a problem here, the focus puller lost his lunch all over Tom."
"Captain Phillips" made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival last night. The film opens in wide release on October 11. Below footage from the NYFF red carpet. - Reporting by Drew Taylor