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Anatomy of a Scene: Oscar-Nominated Editor Christopher Rouse Talks the Pivotal Attack in 'Captain Phillips'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 29, 2014 at 2:05PM

Best Picture nominee "Captain Phillips" is the ultimate in Paul Greengrass-style verite, given its life and death intensity and emotional epiphanies. More than just a fact-based heist gone bad, it raises deep concerns about our globalized world in conflict. Oscar nominee Christopher Rouse, who's already won an Academy Award for editing "The Bourne Ultimatum," discusses the pivotal attack on the Alabama, which was dangerous to shoot as well as challenging to cut.
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'Captain Phillips'
'Captain Phillips'

Best Picture nominee "Captain Phillips" is the ultimate in  Paul Greengrass-style verite, given its life and death intensity and emotional epiphanies. More than just a fact-based heist gone bad, it raises deep concerns about our globalized world in conflict. Oscar nominee Christopher Rouse, who's already won an Academy Award for editing "The Bourne Ultimatum," discusses the pivotal attack on the Alabama, which was dangerous to shoot as well as challenging to cut.

"I remember when Paul first spoke about the dramatic opportunity of putting one of the greatest actors of our time [Tom Hanks] up against a group of young, untrained Somali men [led by the Oscar-nominated Barkhad Abdi]," recalls Rouse, who's also co-producer. "Tom gives you so much, in so many ways. He's so centered, so locked in, and his choices are wonderfully specific and nuanced. The Somali kids were tremendous. And while sometimes I had to help shape their performances, they all had great instincts. And they did something quite difficult, even for trained actors. They made us feel some empathy for them, despite their actions. 

Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips"
Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips"

"I suppose I should preface this by saying I tried to differentiate the two attacks on the Alabama. The first, failed attack comes straight out of a scene where the crew is going through an on-deck drill, when everything is procedural and matter-of-fact. Phillips then sees the approaching skiffs on the radar for the first time -- an anomaly he can't reconcile right away. I tried to mirror his rhythms as best I could as it slowly dawns on him what's occurring, and then is forced into action. The sequence then builds to a climax, but still leaves some dramatic room for the next assault."

And the next assault comes full-force and so the editor again tried to adjust the rhythms to put us with him emotionally right away. But he also needed to leave some room for the rest of the build in the sequence, especially from the time the Somalis open fire on the Alabama.

"In truth, there are a lot of things to clock in a sequence like this," Rouse continues. "Keeping a clear understanding of the characters' goals and obstacles both incrementally within beats, and in the larger sense as well. Defining move and counter move between the two sides as they try to defeat each other (in addition to narrative importance, this struggle for power was crucial in Paul's thematic telling of this story). Keeping a clear sense of geography. Modulating rhythms. And figuring out logistics -- the individual beats and their relationships to each other, because even when a sequence like this is scripted, things change for any number of reasons once you get the footage."

This article is related to: Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass, Editing, Immersed In Movies, Interviews, Thompson on Hollywood, Oscars, Awards, Awards Season Roundup


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.