In the fury of awards season, great films that arrived with strong buzz and critical plaudits can get lost if they arrived earlier in the year. One film that was released in October, but still holds on with strong sea legs is “Captain Phillips” (it’s scored recent DGA, PGA and Golden Globe nominations). Directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks, this in-the-moment thriller is a harrowing drama based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged Maersk Alabama.
The movie also boasts the debut screen appearance of Barkhad Abdi, the lead Somali pirate in the movie before who had never acted professionally before in his life. As reviews and awards from the critical season will attest (our review here), Abdi is a revelation and he gives as good as he gets alongside Hanks. While there’s an excellent supporting cast, including three more unknown Somali actors and several character actors on the Alabama, the movie is almost a two-hander; a test of wills between two men and their different manifestations of desperation. Our interview traversed all things “Captain Phillips,” the origins of the screenplay, working with Abdi, the raw and unrehearsed post-traumatic syndrome sequence and the search for behavioral truth that informed the film every step of the way.
You guys both get a lot of scripts and projects across your desks that you have to weigh, what is it about the material in this that attracted you both?
Greengrass: Well for me Tom was already involved so that was a big plus for me. It was a great story; it was very fresh as far as landscape. I liked the idea of a pirate story, make it real world pirates, not Hollywood pirates and also my Dad was in the Merchant Marines and at sea all his life so I grew up in that world. So it was an opportunity to make a film about that as well.
Hanks: I was lucky that Paul was the guy that made the movie. We had spoken about almost working together on a couple of other occasions, but it didn’t work out. I was familiar with the story before I read it the screenplay adaptation by Billy Ray. But when I read it—I had never seen a movie like this, it was very straight forward on one front. Pirates climb aboard and kidnap Richard and hold him hostage and all the rest plays out as we know from the non-fiction accounts of it. But that simplicity is incredibly complex in the inner workings of certainly the character of Richard Phillips, but then also in the character of [the main Somali pirate] Muse. On the one hand this is really just kind of like a mano-y-mano go at it but it ends up being … I knew there was going to be a substantial amount of interior monologue type of stuff that went on that was going to make for a movie that I had not seen before.
There’s a lot of texture to chew on underneath the thriller surface, is that kind of also what drew you to the material, Paul?
Greengrass: Yeah, in the end it was really the characters. One, a Captain of a modern container ship from our world and the other, a kind of young delinquent; Captain of a pirate ship with an AK47 and nothing to lose. That battle of wills and contest was really the heart of the beast. So that was always very clear to me that it was incredibly captivating. It was a fresh world, it was a great thriller, it was very connected. It was very accessible, but it had this wonderful kind of character commissioned at the heart of it. And I thought if we made it in a certain way we could illuminate the broader landscape of the fast globalizing world because that is the world of the ships that hold the boxes. They’re basically traversing the globe, back and forth and so on and so forth. Piracy sort of attacks them, it’s a threat to the new global economic order, that’s why we take it so seriously. That’s why it’s so difficult to deal with because it goes to the heart of a system that everybody’s been locked out of. But you’ve got to deal with the film, not as narrative and character, that stuff takes care of itself. [The socio-political ramifications], you don’t want to speak to or underline, but you hope it’s there at the end of the film. It sort of bleeds into it.
Right. I was going to say there’s a lot of it that’s really implicit. You humanized the villain, but it’s definitely not at all overt.
Greengrass: I hope not. I mean we worked really hard not to make it. You want it to be complex and layered, but also conversely, it’s a bit of a paradox but you want it to be absolutely clear in the writing. When you get a clue you get the layers of complexity along the way, that’s when a film gets interesting.
Tom, you’d actually met the real Captain Phillips, right? What was your one take away from him?
Hanks: Mostly he’s a very pragmatic veteran. Being a Captain of a merchant marine vessel, it holds no glamor for him, it’s literally his workaday world. All routine. It looks like it has the glamour of the unknown but this is a guy who three times a year goes off and flies to some third world country, gets on board one of these ships and maintains it for the better part of over three months. So the routine that goes along with that he has to maintain is really the type of guy that you get. He’s very practical, he’s very pragmatic, he had had experiences in other parts of his career in which he truly did fear for his life, mostly like a hurricane at sea and a fire that was on board a ship.
Not to take away from the idea of four guys threatening him with AK47s. It’s nothing to sneeze at. He was very much in tune with the idea that on board a ship an awful lot of things can go wrong all the time. There is very little that has happened that you haven’t seen before. And then in this case there were at least human beings he got to interact with, so he wasn’t absolutely helpless. He was smart in that way and he was experienced. He doesn’t view himself as any sort of great hero. He doesn’t think what he went through necessarily deserves a lot of attention he knows that he was a guy who was waiting for heroes to show up in order to get him out of that mess. He’s a very straight forward guy who knows that the six days he went through were filled with an awful lot of boredom, with occasional journeys into terror. He knows the difference.
Presumably that pragmatism, the less sexier parts of the character, are harder to pull off and convey as an actor than one might think.
Hanks: The great thing, under Paul’s guidance, is all the characters and crew know how the ship works. He’d say, “Remember, we know the ship, they don’t.” I think you have throughout the movie this understanding that in some ways Richard Phillips has an upper hand. He does not have a weapon but he does have this vast ship that only he knows the secrets of. So he ends up doing an awful lot of stuff to play close to his vest and that never really stops until they’ve been on the go for so long and exhaustion has set in and then it becomes even more complicated then it was.
Tell me about casting the Somali pirate Barkhad Abdi. He’s all raw nerve, intuitive acting; a bolt of lightning.
Greengrass: Well it’s funny, when you make a film you always look back and there are always crucial decisions that get made, you look back and at the time they don’t seem like it, but you look back and you see they were absolutely fundamental. One of those was to cast Barkhad.
We needed to find Somali actors to play those Somali parts. That was quite a challenge. At the time we were all very worried. Would we find the right Somali actor to play the part? Particularly because it’s such a large part, they would play opposite Tom and everything that means. So it was a big risk.
I know it sounds trite but it’s the absolute truth: as soon as you saw Barkhad he just stood out. He had a real presence, he was the leader of that group both in real life and on screen. At first he seemed very menacing, but also he had real humanity. I had no doubt he had the ability to do it, and that was married to a really impressive work ethic and desire to get it right. Those guys were trained and worked hard for a couple of months to be ready and then it was a marvel when he came face to face with Tom. You can prepare a young actor all you like but in the end it’s very like sport, once they cross that white line it’s about their desire, their ability to tell a story.
Hanks: They reminded me of guys I knew when I was studying theater back in college. They had passion, they had the ability to do it. They have an innate understanding of the rise and fall of storytelling. Now learning how to make a movie is something you can figure out in about an afternoon. The physics of it, the marks, the lights, etc. What’s hard to do is to suspend your own feelings of self consciousness. The natural actors can do that; they can become part of a characterization and learn how to maintain it. All four of our Somali actors did that. Barkhad always had a major objective in his brain for every single scene, every single shot and his timing was on, his concentration was without a doubt was extraordinary and that ended up feeding all of us in order to be in the moment at the same time. It sounds like actor gibberish kind of talk, but a lot of times you’re doing a movie and not everybody in the scene is in the moment at the same time, they’re all working on other agendas.
And so you, Barkhad and all the Somali actors didn’t actually meet until the cameras were rolling, right?
Hanks: We did not meet. Nobody who played the crew of the Alabama met the Somalis until the day we shot them storming the bridge. We heard they were there, we had been able to see them on the horizon and they were working and training, but we did not meet them face to face or know what they looked like until we shot the scene of them storming the bridge. And it was extremely tactile, it had a very real scary feeling to it. They were the skinniest, scariest human beings I had ever come across. We had to do that scene immediately three or four times right in a row and every time we got right back to that same place and then we had to continue on and after that we sort of know each other so we had a moment where we could size each other up as people all making the same movie. It’s a good thing we were all making the same movie.
Damn, that’s ballsy. And then you get onto your test of wills.
Greengrass: In a way it’s really a revolution, isn’t it? When he seizes control of the bridge. Everything that follows starts in that scene, that’s the fatal moment when the two stories intersect for the first time. If you get that right—the bridge is seized, not given. Acting is lots of things, one of the things is will. I’m going to seize control of this and I don’t want you to give up too easily. If everybody were comfortable and knew everybody you wouldn’t get that, it’s much easier to get Barkhad into that place himself where he was able to just focus on [his Somali co-pirate] Bilal [Barkhad Abdirahman] seizing the bridge. Then Tom had a sort of absolute strong moment to go on and tell the story.
Hanks: We met at a position of complete equality. You now there’s a moment where he says I’m the Captain. that came out of just the way Paul shoots in which everything can work and everything is a possibility and you’re locked into finding the behavior as opposed to recreating very specific, mapped out moments. He was very much empowered in his role as the head of the pirates in the same way that I was empowered as the head of the ship, the guy that had to be the main negotiator. That never left. Even in the long weeks that we were shooting in the life boat itself, the good guys were there, without a doubt, but there was always an unofficial arm wrestling that was going on, specifically between myself and Barkhad and that was as actors pursuing their individual arcs and doing it from the position of respect and power that was granted to us by the filmmaker.
That post-traumatic syndrome scene is creating a lot of stir for good reason. It’s quite exceptional. Can you walk me through it?
Greengrass: The last day we were shooting we were meant to shoot the scene that took place in the story several hours later when Rich Phillips had got cleaned up and showered and been given a uniform and he was sent up to the Captains’ cabin and given a beer and a phone to call home. We actually shot that scene through most of the day, and it was fine; it just wasn’t it. I think we both knew it.
Hanks: It might have worked out all right.
Greengrass: That’s the true nature of filmmaking. The clock’s ticking down, you’ve got a scene that’s okay, but it’s not really quite it. You’ve tried it every which way. And it’s just the luck that the real Navy captain happened to be in there and he happened to say that Rich Phillips had actually gone to the medical room when he first got on the ship so Tom and I said let’s give that a go.
You enter that place, which is a great place to make films: it’s a place where everybody gets into a blind panic and no one knows what they’re doing. Guess what? We’re going to shoot this scene and we don’t quite know what it will be and we don’t’ know how it will go but we’ve got to do it in the next few minutes and everybody panics. I’m slightly exaggerating but only somewhat because the truth is, when you enter that place everybody starts being instinctive, everybody stops over-thinking stuff. There was a young medical officer there, Danielle, and literally we turned Tom over to her over and I’ll let him tell the next bit of the story.
Hanks: The work that we set out to do from the very beginning – when Paul said it, I sort of lit up – was figuring out what the procedure was going to be throughout the movie and then capturing the accurate behavior. There’s procedure to being on board a merchant marine ship. There’s procedure on being on a life boat at sea, and in this case there was a procedure that was going to be about cleaning up Richard Phillips when he came into the infirmary. Now they knew the procedures, they were literally on duty as the medical crew on board the ship that day. So Paul saying, “would you guys mind us filming a training exercise,” except it’s going to be me and you would just do what you would do under normal circumstances.
Greengrass: [Danielle, the chief medical officer] looked pretty shocked, there was Tom Hanks in front of her
Hanks: But they all knew what to do so there wasn’t a moment wasted of trying to figure out what that action, and I don’t want to overuse the word procedure, but that’s what they were following through. All of their training and all of what they went through. As far as behavior goes, I did not know specifically what was going to happen but I felt as though I had a good line on what would come out of my side of that was Richard Phillips having witnessed and experienced some terrible things.
It was a very freeform and rather luxurious fifty minutes that we got to shoot in a room that hadn’t been scouted, hadn’t been lit, hadn’t been written, hadn’t been planned and really wasn’t rehearsed other than quick camera and physical placement. “Danielle will be here” and it all came about because of the willingness of Paul and the rest of the filmmakers to do it and also the comfort that the Navy crew had of showing us how they do what they do. The end result was not supposed to be the last scene in the movie but Paul made that decision later on.
Greengrass: I would say Tom was the crucial bit. I’ll embarrass him now but it’s true. One of the things actors do, they’re like water diviners, they go out to the desert with a crooked stick looking for water on the ground. Looking for the truth in the moment. The actors have to be able to divine it, you know?
That’s really what we’ve been doing all day, trying to find where the truth was. Not all actors can find it. It’s the art of it and it wasn’t upstairs in the Captain’s cabin. We looked everywhere, in every seat and every part of that room. I remember the first take down in the medical room which went all wrong, [the chief medical officer] got very self conscious and dry and [cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and I got all cramped up in one corner and it all sort of fell apart.
Hanks: The serendipity that we had that it was a woman that was asking the questions and it was a woman that was touching Richard Phillips and cleaning up, that was just a god of filmmaking that brought that. If it had been a rough guy with tattoos and a beard it might have been something different, but because it was this excellent medical officer. She was in charge of the place, the officer on duty and that ended up being…look I sort of understood what the scene was about but I didn’t know what was going to happen.
She kind of unlocks the scene with her presence in a way. It’s so real
Greengrass: The point is the actor’s got to find it first of all. And then you’ve got to have the courage to walk through that door and nail it with complete conviction and also complete control. That’s the scene, it’s a beautiful study in shock and confusion and it’s heartbreaking and cathartic because at that moment I think what happens in that film is the audience is with Richard Phillips. When she’s saying, “it’s going to be okay,” when you watch the film you’re with him and you’re processing it as he is processing it. That’s why I think the audience s going to respond so strongly to the film.
Tom, I think I cut you off there, did you have anything more to add?
Hanks: No. What I was going to say, is we could talk about it for a long time, but it kind of happened with eyes rolling in the back of the head so it’s almost better that it ends up being there it speaks for itself.
This is a great collaboration, will we see you guys work together again?
Hanks: I’ll do it.
Tom, you said earlier that you and Paul almost worked together, but it didn’t happen. Did you almost play Jason Bourne? [laughs]
Hanks: That’s hilarious. I almost played Jason Bourne’s fat, out of shape brother in law. No. I was not going to be there. [laughs]
“Captain Phillps” is in theaters now and hits DVD/Blu-Ray on January 21.