One sign of success in Hollywood is controversy. Well-reviewed Somali pirate saga “Captain Phillips” is hanging in at the box office against the fall onslaught because it combines a powerful true story with consummate moviemaking from director Paul Greengrass, who not only efficiently builds tension but shows us the points-of-view of the heroic kidnapped Captain Richard Phillips and his crew as well as their Somali pirate torturers.
Right on top of the October 11 opening of this David and Goliath tale, which was adapted by Billy Ray from Phillips’ memoir of the 2009 hijacking, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” some Phillips’ seamen, who filed a 2009 lawsuit against the Maersk line, spoke out about the dangers Maersk put them through, asserting among other things that the film was inaccurate and their captain irresponsible.
In the film Phillips (Tom Hanks) is worried about security as he checks over the enormous cargo ship Maersk Alabama. That’s because the designated route is past the horn of Africa and Somalia, where pirate warnings are posted. In the film, when a tiny skiff filled with four tall, skinny men arrive at the Alabama, they seem impossibly small against the powerful vessel hosing them with gallons of water. But these Somalis have something Captain Phillips and his men do not: desperation and guns. (In 2009, shipping companies didn’t supply security guards, relying on insurance to cover their losses; many now helicopter in protection for their ships.)
It’s a tense battle as Phillips and his men try to outwit the pirates, whose implacable leader is wily Muse (well-acted by non-pro Somali emigre Barkhad Abdi, who was recruited with three of his pals by casting director Francine Maisler in Minneapolis). Against seemingly impossible odds, we see the tiny figures climb a ladder up the side of the gigantic ship. Once on board with their guns, the pirates are in charge. “Look at me,” Muse orders Phillips. “I’m the Captain now.” (This was an improvised moment.)
It’s hard not to consider Phillips heroic when the captain kept his crew locked up, away from the pirates, and put himself at considerable risk.
At a WGA event Ray defended the film’s accuracy –if anything it toned down some of the horrors, he said, in the interest of a taut two-hour narrative. One criticism of Phillips is that he navigated too close to Somalia’s pirates. The problem, Ray explained by drawing me a map, is that the Alabama was heading for the port Mombassa, which was only 50 miles from the Somalia border. And pirates have caught up with ships as far as 850 kilometers off the Somalia coast. These kidnappings go on all the time. In fact, 62 people have been killed by Somali pirates since the movie was released, Ray said.
Greengrass has also addressed the issue as follows:
I saw those stories too, based upon an “anonymous crew member.” Here are the facts. Shortly after the Maersk Alabama incident was successfully resolved, and Captain Phillips returned home safely, some members of the crew sued Maersk Corporation claiming they had been put in harm’s way. They also alleged that Captain Phillips had ignored warnings to stay away from the coast of Somalia. When we started the film, it was a top priority for me to look into this issue in every detail. And I obviously can’t comment on this lawsuit, but what I can say is that myself, along with my colleague Michael Bronner formerly of ’60 Minutes,’ with whom I worked on ‘United 93’ and other projects, we researched the background of the Maersk Alabama highjacking in exhausting detail over many months. We spoke to every member of the Alabama crew bar one, all of the U.S. Military responders that played a leading role in these events, and thoroughly researched backgrounds of the four pirates and the issue of Somali piracy generally. And I’m 100% satisfied that the picture we present of these events in the film, including the role playing by Captain Phillips, is authentic. I stand by the picture I give in the film, absolutely.
The movie is an intense thrill ride, as former documentarian Greengrass, using skills he picked up on “United 93,” and his regular editor Christopher Rouse (since “The Bourne Supremacy”) place the audience in a vise which they tighten until the very end. Greengrass insisted on shooting 75% of this arduous film–which took two and a half months–on the ocean with real ships supplied by the Maersk Line and the U.S. Navy. “The Social Network” producing team –Scott Rudin, Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti (whose military contacts were a huge help getting this made) –had to dicker with the MPAA ratings board and shave one intense lifeboat scene to earn their PG-13.
Still, Hanks’ extraordinary acting in the last few scenes, from when he’s bound and trapped at gunpoint in a bobbing claustrophobic lifeboat to the finale, will earn the two-time Oscar-winner his sixth nomination. Multiple other nominations are also certain (Rouse and “The Hurt Locker” and “United 93” cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s 35 mm hand-held photography among others) for this well-made and resonant tale about the world’s haves and have-nots. “Captain Phillips” reminds that even wealthy and mighty America, with its destroyers, helicopters, drones, SEALs and ammunition, can be all-too vulnerable to a few hungry fishermen.
Producers Brunetti and De Luca have teamed up on several movies, from “The Social Network” and “21” to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which seemed to be proceeding smoothly when I talked to them after a recent Sneak Preview screening of “Captain Phillips,” but has now lost its hunky leading man, Charlie Hunnam. De Luca used to run production at New Line Cinema before heading out on his own, producing “Ghost Rider,” “Brothers” and “Moneyball,” among other titles. And Brunetti is partnered with Kevin Spacey at Trigger Street Productions, which made David Fincher’s Netflix Emmy-winner “House of Cards,” among other things.
Anne Thompson: This is a very intense movie. How did you get the PG-13?
De Luca: Sometimes with the MPAA, they’ll identify a specific shot or sequence or certain scene or plot point, but in this case it was overall intensity so you’re kind of left negotiating with yourself a little bit. From what I heard, it’s the penultimate scene where he’s in a lifeboat and the SEALS take the shots, the length of his scream and the amount of gore. I think Paul went back and forth a little bit producing that by degrees, preserving the integrity of the sequence but ultimately screwing the the PG-13. As you can tell from the movie that precedes that scene, there isn’t any language or gratuitous violence or sexual content
How did you get the rights? This was a real story, the actual occurrence was in 2009, so getting the rights was the deal here.
De Luca: It began with everyone watching the story unfold on the news after the incident resolved. Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and I wondered if there was a movie there, and then Dana and Kevin Spacey went to Vermont to talk to Captain Phillips.
Brunetti: I was in military service, so I contacted a lot of my military friends and then some merchant mariners to contact the captain and we ended up with the Maersk representative first. Obviously a lot of people were trying to get to him and about a week after he got back, I got the call to sit down to dinner with me. He still had bruises on his wrists from being bound but what’s amazing is you feel kind of like a vulture going in but there are others going in as well. This is what you have to do if you want to get the rights. You would never believe that Phillips went through what he went through. He was an everyman, with a very dry sense of humor like nothing ever happened and about a week after that he agreed that he would go with us. They wanted to wait until the book was completed but they would come back to us once that was done, and he kept his word.
When did Paul Greengrass get involved?
Brunetti: Tom Hanks got involved first. He was circling the project because he knew the story, as everybody else did. Once Billy Ray finished the first draft of the script, Hanks was interested and that obviously raised the profile quite a bit. Then we had quite a few directors circling it and we took some allegiance with some, but when we met with the Maersk representative and with Rich Phillips and his family, particularly in the real life situation, you always ask who will play this person. We threw a pie in the sky and thought, it would be great for Paul Greengrass, and Tom Hanks would be great thinking that we’d end up somewhere else. I told the family, just so you know, producing movies is not that easy. Tom got involved and we met with Paul and he shared a lot of the same sensibilities that we did and he got very involved.
If you look at “United 93” or “Green Zone,” Greengrass comes from a documentary background, and obviously that was the incentive. Was he the one who insisted on having the screenplay represent the Somali point of view as well as you did?
De Luca: It was an ambition of ours, but Paul really made that the headline in his first couple meetings with Sony and us. The book was great in presenting Richard’s point of view and representing his ordeal but to really do the story justice and get the nuance and complexity of what it means to live in our world where situations like this situation off the coast of Somalia represent a complex world order, that was all Paul in terms of intent and making sure it was there.
Why don’t they have armed security guards on these cargo ships?
Brunetti: Everybody asks that and it’s not as simple a solution as you might think. They do that now, but there’s a possibility of an arms race, that they come back with RFGs. The other, bigger issue is that these ships are going into ports all over the world and they can’t go in armed so what they are doing now, some of these ships will have contractors, mercenaries that they’ll fly them out once they’re out on international waters, put down the security and then they’ll fly them off when they’re about to get to international waters at the next port. So that does seem like the easiest solution. But it’s not.
De Luca: Also I think it’s economics. That was an American flag vessel so the Navy responded. With some of the other piracy that’s going on, other countries and other sponsors or owners of those ships aren’t going to have the assets to deploy or send the money that operation costs so it’s cheaper to pay the ransom, and cheaper to pay your insurance for that. In a lot of cases, it’s part of the budget of doing business.
Brunetti: They all have their insurance, and even Captain Phillips would always say it’s not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “when” we get taken. Hundreds of ships that get taken every year, there’s hostages right now being held.
De Luca: These guys, they really thought when they first saw the naval vessel, “Oh great, money, this is going to be great, this is America, there is going to be a giant bounty on this guy” — not realizing what they were about to be up against.
Brunetti: Captain Phillips told me when I met with him that they didn’t know about anything out there and they’ve actually attacked Navy ships and have since learned not to attack the grey ones.
How did you shoot this? Greengrass appears to have demanded an unbelievable degree of verisimilitude; shooting on open water is something everybody has learned not to do.
Brunetti: This whole thing takes place on water, and we actually explored the possibilities of building a bridge and shooting on that but as Paul started doing his storyboards and blocking things out, we quickly realized that wasn’t going to work. The Navy got involved. They were very proactive with us because it was a good story for them and something they wanted to get behind…and so they gave us a lot of support with the ship. The only computer graphic in this movie is the prop under the water and we obviously changed some of the names on the boat. They gave us the ships: the Wasp, and the Halliburton, which is the last one that comes in, it was on the mission of the real rescue.
Maersk provided us with a sister ship, the Alexander Maersk, which is the sister ship to the Maersk Alabama, and it’s identical to it. We got that pretty cheap. It wasn’t free but, considering. Then we went to Malta. We shot all of the stuff on the ship in Malta, we went out to sea every day and drilled holes in the water and everything with the Navy we shot off Virginia Beach. We put that toward the end of the schedule because initially we kept having Navy ships in other parts of the world. We originally had one in San Diego, then Algiers or some place, but the Navy was still operating. They have to do things around the world, so we kept losing our ships. We kept having to juggle our schedule and ultimately at Virginia Beach, they have plenty of ships there. We were worried that the political climate or whatever was happening in the world could really affect our production. In total, we shot on the water for 54 days.
I understand shooting on the Maersk is painful because it’s all narrow and hard to maneuver. But it must have been the little lifeboat that was the horror.
Brunetti: The interiors of that were on a soundstage outside of London. And we cut up a lifeboat to get in and out of which, just being in it was pretty hard. It was bouncing around all the time while we were shooting eight hours a day. We did shoot some on the water.
De Luca: That was real. People coming in and out of that door was real. It was choppy and it was tough, and for people in the crew it was challenging at first. They got extremely seasick.
Brunetti: Tom was thrown up on. He never got sick. He was game for everything and anything, absolutely he had no issue with any of it, but he was thrown up on. One of the more spectacular days of this, We had like 10 boats that went out following behind the ship. Paul was on the camera boat off to the side. I was up on the Maersk bridge looking down and the backdoor of the lifeboat opened up and it was just projectile vomit coming out!
So you actually used former NAVY SEALS?
Brunetti: Max Martini was the only one that wasn’t. All of them were either acted or medical-processing out, close to retirement about to come out or had already retired or were no longer. Everybody was a real Navy Seal.
How did you do the scene at the end of the movie where Tom Hanks in the sick bay? Who was the woman?
De Luca: The original scene in the original script happened in the captain’s quarters. It was a fine scene. Paul asked what really happened and we found out he was taken to sick bay and that obviously makes more sense and as we picked up more of the real facts from the crew that had been in the incident. He adjusted the scene on the fly during our production schedule that week and just grabbed that woman out of the crew – and that’s a real job. Within three takes they had the crew of the film crying as they shot and Paul obviously, with “United 93,” gets amazing performances from first-time actors and has a great eye for who might be a real natural in front of the camera. She woke up that morning and had no idea she was going to be in a movie with Tom Hanks.
Talk about the casting of the Somalis.
De Luca: We discovered there was a large Somali community in Minneapolis, Minnesota and so we got a casting director there and had an open casting call. They had 700 to 800 Somalis show up dressed like pirates. These four guys really stood out. They actually were friends and had worked together prior so when they came in, they really stood out and Paul responded to them.
Brunetti: it was really smart of them to audition as a group and immediately they showed chemistry, and that their dynamic was like that in real life. Paul identified that and used that. They had no acting experience. Barkhad Abdi, I believe, came as a refugee to America. He got out of Somalia when he was 13.
De Luca: His family was displaced because of civil war and he went to Yemen and he left Yemen when he was 14 and came to Minnesota. He’s an artist in his own right, a songwriter, and he is an actor and a director as well. When he was trying to describe where he pulled from for that performance, he said he would close his eyes and imagine what would have happened to him if he didn’t get out of Somalia because he thinks that he probably would have ended up a pirate.
Apparently the thing that’s said in the movie about the fishing is true, that they were driven to this?
De Luca: It’s a complicated situation because a lot of the war lords that come in to that area and basically get them to go out and do this aren’t from Somalia; a lot are from Europe or even the United States and they profit and make money from them so they exploit and take advantage of them.
Shooting on the water with the skiffs going up against the big ocean vessel, that is real right? And dangerous?
Brunetti: They had a lot of marine training where we sent them out every day for like two weeks with a marine squad but on the boat, those are stunt doubles until they actually get to the ladder but when they’re jumping we had stunt doubles.
Apparently you didn’t have the Somalis meet the other crew members in the beginning.
De Luca: We kept them separated from Paul, Tom Hanks and the crew until they first met. That scene when they come up was the first time you ever met. It felt real. As you were watching, it felt real. It was a really good strategy on Paul’s part.
You’re producing “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which is a challenge in terms of taking explicit material and turning it into the kind of movie that everyday moviegoers would be willing to go see.
De Luca: It’s a cliche to say this but a picture is worth a thousand words. I think the author was trying to really show you the inside of this girl’s mind as she goes through this sexual awakening. She really wanted you to believe in the point of view of the character and with something literary, it’s okay to be over-descriptive in a way because you’re painting on a different canvas in film. In a movie you don’t need to be explicit, you can be subtle and nuanced because it’s imagery, and we process images differently than we do words. We talked early on how we’re all fans of the Adrian Lyne aesthetic and what he would do with sensual material in his heyday. Since then, Hollywood has kind of given up on a straight-up love story that’s not buried in some genre, so we’re excited at the prospect of bringing that kind of filmmaking back.
The book deals with interesting male/female power dynamics. I’m happy to see you got a woman director.
De Luca: Sam Taylor-Johnson had directed her first film “Nowhere Boy,” which was very good. It’s tricky, too, because you’re dealing with an iconic character, young John Lennon, so you know where that story goes, Aaron Taylor-Johnson played Lennon. She’s a photographer and she has a background in that medium and she did a short film that was such an apropos calling card for “Fifty Shades.” It was a really tasteful and sexy love story. She’s just got a really great sensibility.
You had to sign the leads up for more than one film, and for them to be willing to be naked?
De Luca: Dakota Johnson [the daughter of Melanie Griffiths and Don Johnson] was in “The Social Network.” She has a scene with Justin Timberlake, who’s pretty charismatic and holds the screen like a movie star. What we noticed about Dakota is that she held her own with him. It is a short scene but it’s Aaron Sorkin’s writing and she delivered the lines like she’d been doing Sorkin, we thought, for years and she had kind of an old soul quality to her skillset for that early in her career. When you get to know her in person she does remind you of Anastasia in the books, a young woman but also kind of an old soul and you feel there’s kind of a mystery there to be solved. The film starts shooting in November.
Audience: I’m curious about the green leaves that the Somalis used. Could you tell us about that?
De Luca: It’s really an herbal hallucinogenic and they were going through pretty bad withdrawal by the time the fourth day happened, and it contributed to the hysteria on the lifeboat, and the window to negotiate was closing. You start to go through pretty harsh withdrawal.