When Tom Hanks barks a command in Aaron Schneider’s World War II thriller “Greyhound,” you can bet that one of his underlings will swiftly repeat that order, something that happens so often that you’ll be swimming in Navy jargon by the film’s end.
“Greyhound,” which can currently be seen on Apple TV+, is a film about adhering to protocol and how that dependency is tested when lives are at stake. Hanks wrote the screenplay himself, and his character explains how “repetition” helps to bring “hell down from on high.” And in case you needed to hear it again, Schneider agrees that amplifying the repetitive, procedural nature of “Greyhound” was crucial in conveying that this is a matter of life and death.
“Communication is an art form in the military. And that redundancy has a purpose,” Schneider said in an interview with TheWrap. “So by the end of this movie, does anyone have any doubt about why the repetition of these commands is so important and why they’re life or death? You might not have realized that in the first scene when you thought it was weird that everyone was repeating lines in a movie because I’ve never heard that before. Hopefully, by the end of the film, that protocol is meaningful to you, and now it’s part of your understanding of the way these men operate.”
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In “Greyhound,” Hanks plays the commanding officer of an American destroyer in WWII whose job is to escort a convoy of commercial boats and troop transports across the Atlantic. But he has to take desperate measures to defend from German U-boats when the convoy enters what’s known as the “Black Pit,” the area in which air cover is out of reach.
For the bulk of its 90 minutes, “Greyhound” is a dangerous game of cat and mouse as the Greyhound pursues and evades the Nazis. And throughout, you’re peppered with naval terminology and nautical commands like “left rudder to 032” that help paint a picture of the invisible enemies underneath the ocean’s surface. You even feel the absence of those repetitive commands when one sailor sneezes in between passing along coordinates to Hanks, costing them precious seconds.
“There’s a redundancy to it that feels…redundant,” Schneider said. “However, when your life depends on the numbers 032, or whether you hit a ship in front of you or not depends on those three numbers, suddenly the idea of repeating it back, we’ve all given someone our credit card number over the phone. And don’t you always get nervous when they don’t read it back to you and you wonder if it’s going to go through.”
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Hanks was already steeped in the universe of World War II, and Schneider said that when he met with Hanks in the Playtone offices, surrounded by Emmys for “Band of Brothers” and Hanks’ other accomplishments, he felt the pressure of living up to years of genre-defining war stories.
“Now I’m the guy who’s essentially responsible for picking up the torch and carrying this tradition of World War II filmmaking and authenticity forward,” Schneider said. “The buck is going to stop with me in terms of the way our film compares authentically to everything else that came before it. And I’m, like, there’s no way, no way I’m going to drop the ball on this.”
In preparation, Schneider furiously read articles and scoured the internet for photos and records. But he also compiled a detailed website that was shared with cast and crew and became the “foundation for everything” on the film. Second unit directors could refer to it for what buttons needed to be filmed or pressed upon the close-up of the radar, or visual effects crews could have a reference as to how an explosion would look from a given cannon on the ship.
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“You just bury yourself in this stuff man, so that by the time you’re on the set and all you can think of is which set up and which lens to use, all this stuff becomes a part of you, you don’t have to think about it anymore,” Schneider said.
But the real challenge of “Greyhound” for Schneider was effectively filming two separate movies. The crew spent just 35 days filming in both soundstages and aboard a real-life destroyer docked in a museum. But Schneider then had the job of building every reaction shot of the sailors reacting to an ocean and to enemy U-boats that weren’t there.
Schneider said it was like a virtual concert of verbal narration of what’s happening and the actors responding to cues and all using their imaginations. The strength of Hanks’ performance, in particular, is how we see him work to keep his composure, control and noble facade, even as ships in his convoy are blowing up all around him.
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“Every time we see a close-up of Tom Hanks lift his binoculars to his eyes, the cut that follows didn’t exist,” Schneider said. “Tom was building a performance on something that just did not exist. It was in his imagination. It was in his mind, so that he could react to all of these battles. When you watch the film and you see him engaged on an emotional level with what he’s looking at, that’s Tom creating something from scratch.”
Schneider said seeing Hanks perform in “Saving Private Ryan” was a crash course in history and in filmmaking that inspired him to be a director. And when he finally met Hanks and chatted with him, the two bonded over their love of that history.
“This reminds me of when I was doing my thing and I was writing my own project, when I was doing something entirely for me,” Schneider said. “It’s cool enough to make a World War II film with Tom, but if this thing is something personal to him, if this thing is something, Tom’s done it all, so if this is him playing with an idea that’s new to him and new and exciting for him, then that’s gravy on top of it all.”
“Greyhound” can be seen on Apple TV+.