“It seems to me the potential benefits of an editor’s early participation [in a project] could be creatively and fiscally significant,” notes Christopher Rouse, who is Oscar-nominated for Best Achievement in Editing for Captain Phillips. Director Paul Greengrass brought his regular collaborator Rouse in six months before the start of production as Billy Ray and he were still working on the script. “Paul believes [as I do] that editing is the natural extension of the writing process, and so it makes sense I would be involved at that point. Coming in early allows me to inhabit Paul’s vision fully, feed ideas into his creative process, and help him pre-empt issues that could arise during production or postproduction.” The result is a Best Picture-nominated film that continuously builds up tension the moment the blips began to appear on the ship’s radar screen indicating they are being tracked to the final gunfire with Somali pirates that frees a traumatized Phillips (Tom Hanks). Rouse brought home an ACE Eddie Award for the film just a couple of weeks ago.
Rouse worked hard to keep close to the richly drawn and complex characters and address the tension as those characters experienced it. “For example, when Phillips first sees the Somali skiffs approaching on radar, it’s something he can’t reconcile right away,” he said. “I tried to pick pieces that tracked Phillips gradually processing the information, and editorially mirror his internal rhythms as he comes to grips with the threat and goes into action.” As the story unfolds and pirates overtake the ship, climb aboard and force their way into the captain’s deck, the characters becoming highly reactive. That is never so present as when the pirates are in the cramped, uncomfortably hot and rolling lifeboat with their hostage Phillips. “We needed to feel things were uncertain — that anything might happen,” said Rouse. “And so I tried to build appropriate performances with unpredictable rhythms to an aggressive, unexpected conclusion.”
The biggest challenge, said the editor, was keep the director’s vision, the rich story and the integrity of the characters “while attending to the genre requirements of a thriller. When editorial pace increases, depth can be lost in pursuit of excitement. I tried to keep the nuances of story, character, and theme alive no matter what.” One of those helping Rouse maintain that delicate balance was his good friend and first assistant editor Mark Fitzgerald. “Mark and I have been together for over 20 years. He has phenomenal skills and great instincts, and I value his opinion tremendously,” said Rouse, who added that he was “blessed with a fantastic team.”
One of the more complex sequences begins with the towing of the lifeboat and ends with Phillips’ final rescue. By that time, the audience is heavily invested with the characters. “It was extremely important that the release of tension after the gunshots delivered more than the feeling of relief that our hero was saved,” said Rouse. “It’s an emotionally complex moment when Phillips is rescued via the killing of the Somalis — and we had to feel the full measure of it.” And, indeed, we did. The final scene was not one any of us will soon forget.