EXCLUSIVE: Conveying the kinetic energy of real-life events has become a signature for Paul Greengrass. He grew up making documentaries, and then television dramas like the IRA car bombing saga Omagh, which he produced and co-wrote. He turned that urgent cinematic style to features including 2002’s Bloody Sunday, the Oscar-nominated 2006 drama United 93, and fictional dramas including Green Zone, and the last two Bourne installments The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Here, he’s in the Oscar hunt again with Captain Phillips, and so are his dueling captains played by Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi.
DEADLINE: We all watched the Somali pirate hijacking play out in real time not long ago. What did you see under the surface here that made this feature-worthy?
GREENGRASS: There’s got to be something about the story that’s both accurately clear and dramatic, but also layered and complex. That was the case here and on United 93. What was clear about both: these were siege/hostage crises that turned into tense, dramatic events with clear, compelling characters. But there was a broader more complex landscape. Why do young men become pirates, these vagabonds with AK-47s who are prepared to defy the might of the U.S. Navy? It was enough to ask, what does this event mean? It’s layered and complex and it goes to where we are today. I felt that way about United 93 and Bloody Sunday. You make the film as authentically as you know how, and if you make judgments with a spirit of open-mindedness, complexities emerge. These traumatic series of events seem to speak to the way we are.
DEADLINE: It sounds like you can be surprised during the journey, when things reveal themselves even when you have a strong script as your blueprint. What emerged that surprised you most?
GREENGRASS: I remember Tom and I having a long, rolling conversation early on, asking, what is this really about? What’s the question we’re trying to answer here? We ended up literally writing it on a piece of paper. Is it going to be OK? It seems banal, but it captured the state of mind of a regular guy in the Merchant Marines who goes off to sea. My father was in the Merchant Marines. All of us feel the economic pressure that causes us to work harder. Then this terrible thing happens and it becomes a question of, it’s going to be alright, isn’t it? There is a feeling of underlying unease, a general sense that the world wheels are turning fast.
DEADLINE: Your Somali pirates were played by first-time actors. Why did you keep them away from Tom Hanks until the siege occurred?
GREENGRASS: From day one, they were saying, when can we meet Tom Hanks? I said, not until you go through that door and take that ship. They were disappointed, but my great anxiety was this: the movie is a study of two captains, two very contrasting figures. One is captain of a large container ship from our world, the other a lawless vagabond from another world. I didn’t want Barkhad to be thinking, that’s Tom Hanks. Or even worse, that’s my friend Tom Hanks. I wanted him to have one thought only. When you go through that door, you have to scare, terrorize and seize control of that bridge. Barkhad came up with that brilliant line, ‘I’m the captain now,’ and it came from that challenge that he had to take charge. I tried to prepare him psychologically. Acting is many things, and one is an exercise of will. In any given scene, you’re trying to find where the drama and conflict is, and then deploy the actors to play at that point of conflict with precision, control, and complete will. It’s no good in a scene to have one actor lie down because the scene says it’s the other actor’s moment. Each actor has to believe that with extra will, the outcome of a scene can be different. An actor can win the scene if he exerts the most powerful will in that moment. That’s what happened. Look back at those performances by Tom and Barkhad; they really build from the moment Barkhad seizes control. For Tom, that’s the moment that he must come back from. The look on his face, a magnificent moment, where he knows his ship is going to be taken. You feel in his face the existential shock of a captain losing his ship. The psychological collapse would be immense. Tom’s performance is really about rebuilding himself from a position of hopelessness, to the end where he goes on that journey in the lifeboat that becomes more emotional and deeper. The film is their trial of strength, their test of wills and it all grew from that first moment. (more…)