Captain Phillips (Opening Night, NYFF51) director Paul Greengrass.
Ahead of today's exciting announcement that the World Premiere of Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips will open the 51st New York Film Festival, the celebrated filmmaker chatted with FilmLinc Daily about his latest film, starring two-time Academy Award winner and 2009 Film Society Chaplin Award honoree Tom Hanks.
Set on the high seas, the film tells the true story of Captain Phillips (Hanks), his crew, and merchant ship, the Maersk Alabama, which was seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2009. The multi-layered thriller gives a complex portrait of the effects of globalization, but focuses on the relationship between Phillips and his Somali counterpart, Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Based on the book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy Seals and Dangerous Days at Sea from a screenplay by Bill Ray, the tense drama plays out as both seamen pay a toll for economic forces beyond their control.
By telephone from a very warm London, Greengrass shared his insight on the film and why this incident makes for a terrific cinematic experience. He also talked about working with Tom Hanks, the challenges of shooting at sea, and why he's eager to return to New York with his latest work. Greengrass also gave his opinion on working within the studio system and why he thinks criticism that Hollywood has sacrificed storytelling for marketable sequels, superheroes, and special effects simply isn't correct—at least for the most part…
Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Mahat Ali in Captain Phillips. Photo: Jasin Boland
FilmLinc Daily: There have been many incidences of piracy, particularly off the Gulf of Aden and even further out in the Indian Ocean, with such horrific tales of merchant ships and even pleasure craft being seized. It's almost like an unfortunate wealth of stories about terror on the high seas, complete with kidnapping, murder and ransom, but this story about the Maersk Alabama includes the U.S. Navy and a very dramatic rescue of a merchant marine captain.
Paul Greengrass: It was a pretty well known story in America. It's such a great story and such a large story. Quite often one only works with a limited amount of information in order to create [a film]. But this one contains so much right from when the ship sets sail and the pirate boat sets sail. Then they meet and there's an attack and there's cat and mouse with getting aboard the ship followed by more cat and mouse once they are aboard. And then, of course, Captain Phillips gets put in the lifeboat when they try to escape and then the U.S. Navy converges. It's just a very, very dramatic story.
FD: It's like the old expression, “You can't make this stuff up…”
PG: There's the relationship between the American merchant captain, played by Tom Hanks, and a young Somalian captain pirate of a small skiff. So I love that and it's incredibly great to have the opportunity to do what I love doing which is to make, hopefully, an exciting film that works as an intense thriller. But it's also got real depth to it.
FD: Were you able to work with the actual Captain Phillips during the making of the film?
PG: Yes, we optioned his book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy Seals and Dangerous Days at Sea. He's a very, very nice man and we spent time with his family and I know Tom [Hanks] spent a lot of time with him. It was interesting to immerse yourself in his world. They're the truckers of the sea—aren't they really?—the merchant marine. They're the lifeblood of the global economy and you're never really far from peril on the sea—that's really what the story is about.
FD: Globalization plays a part in this real-life story due to the ever-increasing amount of trade and the dependence on the oceans to transport that trade, even as large swaths of the earth, like Somalia, have been left behind in the global economy.
PG: Yes, that's at the heart of the film. What I've tried to do is provide a compelling two hours that the audience will want to share and set this exciting story in the context of a quickly globalizing world. Ultimately, what drives these two sea captains together is this globalization.
Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi in Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips. Photo: Jasin Boland
FD: Tom Hanks is, of course, a two-time Oscar winner for Best Actor. That must have been quite a coup having him for the role of Captain Phillips.
PG: I think Tom is absolutely fantastic in this film. He's right there in some of the best films he's done and it's Tom Hanks doing what he does best. He gives an incredibly powerful, brilliant, performance about an ordinary man facing the most intense peril. A huge appeal for me with this project was working with Tom and we just hit it off. He's just such a brilliant actor and collaborator.
It's convention at the end, whenever your leading actor finishes his part, someone on set will say, “Part complete for Mr. or Mrs. 'Whoever',” and the crew will give a round of applause. But he got such a sustained, intense round of applause because, I think, everyone who worked on this film knew they had witnessed such a very, very special performance over the 12 weeks we made the film. So you could tell in that moment the esteemed privilege everyone had watching him from the first moment until the last.
FD: What were some of the biggest challenges filming this story?
PG: The biggest challenge was definitely shooting on water. That is traditionally rather a graveyard for directors. It brings all sorts of problems. But I wanted to shoot on water and in real ships. That, of course, gives it a veracity, authenticity and, of course, a sense of excitement. It's brutal out there in any kind of swell and working in a small lifeboat being tossed around was really tough. Obviously some scenes we did inside, but a lot we did on the water and it was brutal.
FD: You're known to use a documentary-style of shooting, something certainly present in United 93, which is of course about a very different hijacking, but one that had a strong emotional impact both for the events surrounding that story and as a viewing experience. Is there a similar style in Captain Phillips?
PG: It's a hard one for me to answer because I know people always say that, but it's like trying to describe your handwriting. It's such an expression of yourself, the way one shoots. What I try to do in any film is to make it as exciting as possible. You go to the cinema to have a cinematic experience and hopefully have something that compels you, and that's what we hopefully achieved—but that's up for others to be the judge.
FD: There's a thriller element present, but I'm guessing that others beyond the regular genre audience will find appeal in this story.
PG: These were very dramatic events in a fight against the clock featuring a very ordinary person who never thought he'd be in the spotlight. That's what it's really about. It's meant to capture the mounting tension and excitement of how he's going to be freed. It's about how they're going to deal with these four desperadoes.
FD: Are you generally drawn to stories that have roots in real life and, if so, is that a natural outgrowth from your earlier career as a journalist?
PG: I would say yes. Not entirely, but there's nothing better than something that has really happened because it tells you about the world we live in. It can excite you and provide you with a cinematic experience. Piracy is something people understand all over the world; whether you come from Japan, Brazil, the U.S., you know about this. It's affected nearly all countries. As our economies become intertwined, the shipping lanes are the arterial routes that take the world's trade. So it's like railroads robberies in the 19th century. It's incredible to think of these young men going out in these small skiffs attacking these huge ships. It's outlandish, really…
FD: What does it mean to you, personally, to have Captain Phillips open the New York Film Festival?
PG: I'm very grateful personally because New York is a city I know well and has been very good to me ever since I first went there as a young student. I've always had tremendous affection for the city. And in terms of making films, it has a special place in my heart. I remember bringing my film Bloody Sunday there, which is the first one to give me some attention over in America, and then United 93 after that. I'm thrilled and it continues my wonderful relationship with that city. I'm excited and looking forward to seeing what people think of the film.
Mahat Ali, Tom Hanks, and Faysal Ahmed in Captain Phillips. Photo: Jasin Boland
FD: This being summer and, as you were saying as we started our conversation, it being so warm there in London, I'm curious about your take on working in the Hollywood system. Summer, of course, is specifically a season of big Hollywood blockbusters, superheroes, sequels and dazzling effects, which means it's also the time of the year when some critics of Hollywood lament the summer tentpoles, which they say sacrifice storytelling in favor of bland “product.” I'm curious what your thoughts are on that…
PG: Honestly and truly?
FD: Yes, bring it on.
PG: I haven't found it myself. Those summer movies… Those who work inside the movie business and anyone who wishes the movie business well have to hold the movies and the industry up to scrutiny. That's, of course, something you have to do. In your heart, you have to have a process of finding the best possible global entertainment cinematic product, which is what they are doing. You're talking about how you can make movies that can entertain around the world. That is the name of the game in a global industry. And that is a really hard thing to achieve, and of course you're going to get some [movies] that don't work so well. I've been lucky; I've done pretty well, indeed, especially with the Bourne movies.
I'm the first in a room to be critical, but I'm telling you what's in my heart. I know there are so many people who work their butts off trying to get the best possible films. And in my experience, there are people who are willing to take considerable risks. This whole notion that it's all so shallow and people aren't willing to take risks… Okay, there have been a round of movies that haven't worked lately, but it's not so long ago that we were feasting on Dark Knight and Dark Knight Rises. You can't expect that every one of these films will be a Dark Knight Rises or an Inception or a Bourne, or whatever. You're going to get some that work less well, but the important thing is that studios keep trying because they are the gigantic drivers that allow the turbines of the industry to turn.
That's no reason to give films an easy ride or not to be critical, but you're asking me the question as a movie-maker. I feel it's an incredibly hard job to make global filmed entertainment. If some don't work so well, then I'm looking forward to the ones that surely will come that do work well. And they've always come.
FD: But you feel you're able to tell a story without having to bow down to what the studio marketing department might tell you is required in order to make the movie palatable worldwide?
PG: Not at all—at all. Two years ago when we started talking seriously about Captain Phillips, what they saw in this story is a film that would reach an audience, and a broad audience too, both in the U.S. and around the world. They had a choice in this film whether to make the best version of the film or do one without much worry about the storytelling. They could have taken the easy road. I absolutely didn't do that. Their deepest desire is to do things that are popular, reach audiences, and that are good. They don't want to do films that aren't good because, in the end, everyone wants to do their best work. And they're prepared, in my experience, to go the extra mile and then some. And it's not just one studio—I'm talking broadly.
That said, it's ever more difficult to find properties, concepts, stories—or whatever you want to call them, characters, situations—that will stand a chance of being as relatable in Japan as the Middle East, as South America and North America, or Europe and the U.S. It's hard to put characters into a global [context].
My take away is this: Our industry needs these movies to work. Anyone who has our industry at heart is in the business of creating an environment and climate to make these movies as good as they possible can be. I enjoy these movies too. I will take my kids to the Supermans or whatever. You want the mixed environment. You want the big entertainment palace of a Superman and the smaller niche art house. You want them all. You want a confident industry that's well resourced and making movies.
Read more about Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips in our announcement of Opening Night of the 51st New York Film Festival.