Greengrass, Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi spoke with TheWrap about the challenging shoot
This story appeared in OscarWrap: Director/Best Picture/Screenplay/Animation.
“Captain Phillips,” the true story of Richard Phillips’ abduction by pirates off the coast of East Africa, turned into the hardest project ever for director Paul Greengrass, who knows about challenging shoots. Filming on a gargantuan cargo ship and a claustrophobic rescue craft, Greengrass brought together real-life Somalis and the Oscar-winning Tom Hanks for gripping drama and bravura performances on the high seas. The director, the star and the intrepid Barkhad Abdi, in his first acting role, spoke to TheWrap about the experience.
SHARON WAXMAN What interested you in making “Captain Phillips?”
PAUL GREENGRASS Firstly, it was just a fantastic modern crime story. I loved that it was real-world pirates as opposed to cuddly Hollywood pirates, and I loved that it was a film that felt ripped from the headlines but you go into it in a way that you can’t get from the news. And secondly the fact that this gentleman [gestures at Tom Hanks] was involved, that was a big part of it.
TOM HANKS I heard about it long before there was even a screenplay, because a crack team of show-business experts informed me, “We’re tracking this, we’re tracking this,” and I said, “Alright, fine.” I was aware of it just because it was in the news. So in preparation for reading the screenplay, I read Richard’s book.
What was great was that it was very straightforward and detail-oriented. It’s not a matter of plot or a gimmick or what the audience needs to understand or buy. It was, here are the facts, very simple to interpret, that don’t need a substantial amount of embellishment. Then that just required the getting together of who the filmmaker was going to be.
And that was Paul.
HANKS I remember seeing “Bloody Sunday” years ago, before I even knew who he was, and I thought, well, whoever made this movie has just rewritten the rules of non-fiction entertainment. Paul had this desire: some kind of empirical authentic way in order to examine the theme that I just think is very bodacious. So we had to get together, because he could have said, “I want to do something different,” and I could have said something like, “I just really want to fire a submachine gun,” and then in which case we wouldn’t have been making the same movie.
GREENGRASS One of the reasons I made it is very personal — my dad, he’s very old now, nearly 90, but he was at sea all his life. I grew up in that marine life as a kid. I wanted to make a film about my dad’s world, and it was a great, great pride to me to bring him down to London when it was screened the other week. He wore his medals. The Merchant Marine, as you call it—the Merchant Navy is what we called it, we don’t have that anymore — that’s the lifeblood of the world’s economy. Everything we wear, everything in our houses, it all comes in containers. That’s a hard, hard life. It’s a calling. There are many dangers. For this particular ship, it was piracy. I didn’t want Johnny Depp. I wanted darker, I wanted the real world of it, to find out what that’s about.
Tom, what was the theme that you were looking for?
HANKS It ends up being an examination of the mechanism of global commerce. These ships have to carry goods through these waters — that’s it. That’s all there is to it. Then the backstory that comes from the mainland of Somalia is relatively easy to grasp. You have that combination of guys doing their job, and it’s not a romantic job, per se — you know even Richard Phillips said, “Hey, we’re the truckers of the ocean.” The job of being the captain of that ship is fraught with pressure every single day regardless of the fact that they are blips on the radar screen.
There’s just a ton of stuff that he constantly has to do, all to keep the big wheels turning. Stuff has to move from there to there, and without it, guess what? The global economy comes to some degree to a standstill. So you’ve got all of these very complicated, immovable forces that end up still being an eyeball- to-eyeball conversation by two guys that have pressures on them that are extreme. And that becomes an examination of the human condition, as opposed to a story of retribution or a story of the great injustices of the world.
GREENGRASS [laughs] I remember we had a conversation up at the office. I gave a big spiel about globalization, and I remember you saying, “Yeah, but it’s kind of about a guy who’s in peril on the sea.”
It seems like you took on insurmountable things. The contrast between that towering tanker and the tiny lifeboat — which actually looks like a little bathtub toy from afar — is so remarkable.
GREENGRASS It was an exact lifeboat. We did build another one so that we had two, but they were exactly the same craft. It’s like being in an orchestra, it’s like being in a band, it’s a collaborative activity. We’re all going through our own individual crisis. Sometimes it’s right down to, Can we get one (take) before we have to turn the ship around? Because if we turn the ship around, the sun is on the wrong side and we can’t do it anymore.
What everybody assumes is that every shot is planned, but we went back and shot scenes two or three times in order to get moments, because we didn’t get it the first time. Not that we failed to shoot it. We failed to imagine it the first time, so we had to go back and rethink it a little bit more and play around and see what happens. But there was a substantial physical reality that was in our pocket on this, in that we all got on the ship in the morning and we went out to sea together. So we weren’t scattered; our focus was very much on the work that was at hand, we could see the day changing.
HANKS This is probably the epitome of how our environment defined our behavior. There’s only so much you can do inside (the rescue craft). It’s a very small, smelly place. I don’t think we were ever in a fake version of what it was. There’s a lot of places to conk your head, and it’s not really comfortable — when you had to get up and move around, you were moving around in a real defined space. Honestly, the stuff that happened to us happened to us in real, physical time and space.
Then we have to learn how to say our lines and take part in the scene, but this odd thing happens in movies where you’re in this huge space and there’s trucks and cables, but eventually it comes down to this very specific focus of eyeballs. Not just close-up, it’s a microscopic examination of what goes on. Behavior then becomes so examined that it’s better when you don’t know if your behavior is being caught on film or not.
I can’t speak for Barkhad, but after a while in there it wasn’t about where the camera was. The camera is always someplace. It was always going to get us somehow, what we had to do was just move and think in the real place and all the work was done for us.
See photos: Outtakes from OscarWrap Magazine Shoots
Barkhad, I understand you are a limo driver in real life. How did you end up in this movie?
BARKHAD ABDI There was an audition in Minneapolis. I came to Minneapolis through the visa lottery. After the war in Somalia I went to Yemen, and when I was 14 we won the American visa lottery. We have some family in Minneapolis, so we moved there. And then the auditioning call came for the Tom Hanks film.
GREENGRASS I wanted Somalis. It was very important to me for the authenticity of the film, for all sorts of reasons, The plan was that [casting director] Francine [Maisler] was going to try to find 30 or 40 people that I’d then meet, and we’d choose from them. But I remember her saying to me, because they were taping 800 people, so we could winnow it down, “You’ve gotta see these four guys.” And they all came in together, and you could see that they were just fantastic. Just brilliant. Barkhad obviously as the leader just had real charisma and that mix of menace and humanity.
You know you’re the villain, right?
ABDI I was just trying to be in the movie.
What did you draw on, base it on?
ABDI I just took it day by day to do the best I could each day. Mainly it was just to put myself in those shoes and be that person for that moment, each moment, and know what he’s working with. Just use my old English, because I used to speak like that one time.
GREENGRASS You said to me once when we were filming that you tried to imagine what your life would have been if you hadn’t won that visa lottery and you’d had to stay in Somalia with no parents, and what would have become of you.
ABDI I feel fortunate enough to have parents who got me out, and I would use that a lot, actually.
Tell us about the first time you guys met on the set.
HANKS Well, we never met. We didn’t have one of those cocktail parties in Malta celebrating the start of principal photography or something like that. Everybody up on the ship, everyone playing the crew, we figured out that we weren’t going to meet the Somalis until the day we shot them boarding the ship. We could see them out there in the distance working on their stuff and getting some second-unit stuff. Through binoculars you could see these very skinny people on these rickety boats. You know, “It’s pretty calm today, they must be working.” “It’s pretty rough, are they still working?”
You have this day that’s going to come; it’s on the calendar: Tuesday we’re shooting the hijacking scene, they’re going to board the bridge sometime today. And your heart starts beating a little bit as you get closer and closer to it, and when the first take comes you hear all the stuff going on and boom, all of a sudden there they are. It’s extremely palpable, it’s a very tactile scene. They came in and they’re scary looking guys, even though they’re incredibly skinny, but holy cow, there it was. To everybody’s credit, we had a moment when we were like “Hey, man, nice to work with you, what a pleasure, wow, we finally get to meet.” That was in the 12 minutes between one setup and the next, then we got right back into it because everybody was prepared.
Paul, how does it work when the Navy lends you a battleship?
GREENGRASS Well, they give you a certain amount of time, and when that time’s up, if you haven’t finished your movie, that’s tough. We had about two weeks, and they were incredible.
ABDI They were really nice. Regular people, who welcomed us. They were young, too.
GREENGRASS The army medic in the final scene, she was just the duty medic who was on that day. She was fantastic. We went down there, we actually were shooting a different scene all day in a different part of the ship, and it wasn’t really working. So we decided at the last moment to shoot the scene in the medical room. She just happened to be there, and I asked if she minded if we shoot this scene — think of it as a training exercise, where we bring in a casualty. “It’ll be Tom Hanks, but don’t worry.” And she sort of went “Gulp,” and we shot it, and the first take it all went wrong, because the first time she saw Tom she kind of went all wonky. And Barry [Ackroyd, the cinematographer] and I stumbled all over, because it was a very tiny room.
But you could feel that there was something there, and Tom just nailed it the next take, and she was brilliant, and he was brilliant. The interesting thing was, the captain, who happened to be captain of the Bruxton, is the one you see, and he happened to be down there next to the monitor. And in the next take I looked over to him and he had tears streaming down his face. He took off his headphones and he said, “I’ve seen a lot of trauma in my time, and that’s exactly what it looks like.”