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

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

“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.”

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.”

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