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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.
Captain Phillips

When the sequence begins, the mood is anticipatory and tense as Phillips is alerted to the impending threat and then goes to the bridge. Greengrass and Rouse consulted with composer Henry Jackman and his team about how to underpin Phillips' emotional state musically, and there's a very simple rhythmic wood block element that is introduced here. Rouse says it's evocative of Phillips' heartbeat, and it begins to accelerate as the looming threat increases. Muse (Abdi) and his crew are then introduced in a fairly straightforward way, reflecting their confidence and resolve as they approach the Alabama. 

"We then return to the bridge as Quinn [Corey Johnson] arrives and Phillips alerts U.S. Maritime Emergency. Here the camera moves are a bit more active and the cuts a bit more edgy as the tension increases. As Phillips readies the Alabama's hoses to defend the ship, Muse's crew prods him to act, and their goading gradually builds to a crescendo when Muse orders them to open fire. Once violence erupts, the rhythms and shot dynamics become much more aggressive. But despite the chaos, it was important to maintain clarity and feel the characters' desperation as they fought for the prize -- the Alabama. And so I tried to articulate those moves as best I could while keeping us in the characters' points of view." 

A few examples include Phillips and crew getting the upper hand when Muse and his team are temporarily thwarted by the water from the hoses, but then Phillips is made vulnerable by the slipped hose and forced to respond. Phillips comes close to hitting the skiff with the flare, only to have the Somalis fire back, nearly killing him. The Somalis try relentlessly to get their skiff alongside the Alabama to attach their ladder, and Phillips counters by turning the ship to hit them. 

"But since they weren't shooting in a controlled environment, imposing structure on that incredibly bold footage wasn't always easy. In the end, it was critical that the climax to the sequence was delivered strongly -- that moment when Muse jumps from the skiff on to the ladder. Not only in a narrative sense because the antagonists had achieved their goal, but in thematic importance as well. Because that's when Phillips' world changed -- it had been successfully invaded by a band of determined young men from an impoverished country."

Overall, Rouse says it was important to keep the characters rich and specific throughout, no matter how kinetic the action was. "If we lost our connection with the characters, we would have lost our emotional investment. We also would have lost the accumulation of stakes and tension, and consequently the film would have lost much of its power."

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.