Paul Greengrass, the Oscar-nominated director of United 93 and two Bourne films, dimly remembered the story from 2009: Richard Phillips, captain of the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama, was kidnapped by Somali pirates and held for ransom. There was a standoff between the pirates and the U.S. Navy; Phillips eventually wrote a memoir.
"Watching the news footage [of the event], it was essentially long shots of the ship when it came into port and a bit of Navy surveillance from high up," Greengrass said in a phone interview last week. "But what a film can do that the news can't, is put you in that experience. So you feel, every step of the way, one of the great stories of cinema: the ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation. How will he react, and what would you do, as the tension rises and the stakes get higher and higher."
I would modify that assertion: It's what a film like Captain Phillips – which opened this week, with Tom Hanks in the title role – can do in the hands of a director like Greengrass, whose commitment to cinéma-vérité verges on the maniacal (in a good way).
Born in Surrey, England and educated at Cambridge, Greengrass, 58, spent the first decade of his career making television documentaries for the British current affairs series World in Action. When he switched to feature films, he integrated into them both the techniques and the urgency of documentary. He uses hand-held cameras instead of dolly shots, which means his actors don't have to hit specific marks; they can move about freely, and he can go in close, creating an atmosphere of immediacy and spontaneity. Instead of building a scene by chopping the action into small segments (a close-up here, a two-shot there), he and his actors "find" the scene: They discuss it exhaustively in advance, then use multiple cameras and shoot complete takes, eight to 12 minutes long. In documentaries, you only get one shot at capturing a raw moment, and Greengrass tries to maintain that now-or-never feeling. As well, he uses real locations and personnel whenever possible.
So when Greengrass signed on to Captain Phillips, he knew he was in for a challenging logistical adventure. It took about two years of preproduction just to assemble the vessels. They shot on a working container ship, the Alexander Maersk, which is a twin to the Alabama. They convinced the U.S. Navy to provide a 155-metre guided missile destroyer, an amphibious assault ship and an aircraft carrier, along with two helicopters: one to act in the mission, and one for a camera to shoot it. All the vessels had working crews who could advise on procedures and even act in some scenes, and one of the ships, the USS Halyburton, was part of the actual international anti-piracy team that rescued Phillips.
"It was fascinating to talk to the men and women on that ship," Greengrass says. "They're so young, but they know far better than we do how complicated and dangerous the world is. Yet they can engage with it and still have hope, you know?"
They shot some scenes in Malta, which has an accommodating harbour, and others 20 nautical miles off the coast of Norfolk, Va., which meant ferrying dozens of crew members, with all their heavy equipment, out to the ships and back again every day. For the pirates, Greengrass insisted on hiring young Somali actors, which meant travelling to Minneapolis (home to the largest Somali community in the U.S.) and auditioning 1,000 novices.
Many of Greengrass's films have a sociopolitical backdrop: The Murder of Stephen Lawrence is about institutional racism in the police; Bloody Sunday examined the shooting of Northern Irish activists by British soldiers; Green Zone detailed the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So he wanted Captain Phillips to address the economic conditions that drive Somali pirates – the overfishing of their waters that put them out of work, the warlords who coerce them to turn criminal. "Those conditions are not what the story's about, but they speak to you," Greengrass says. "If you set your story in the real world, you don't have to impose it, you don't have to lecture. It's just there."
Greengrass's interest was personal, too: His father was in the merchant marine. "My dad was at sea all his life," he says. "Part of making this film was to discover what kind of life he lived when he was away from home."
But the challenges of the prep paled compared to those of the 60 days – 75 per cent of the film – spent shooting on open water. Conditions were claustrophobic (the tight, dark corridors of the vessels), agoraphobic (the roiling ocean, which guaranteed that no two takes would ever match) "and also bounceophobic," Greengrass says, laughing. The first day of shooting in the metal lifeboat – a tiny craft that sits low in the water, with the seats on the floor and only narrow windows along the top – was especially brutal. "It was filled with diesel fumes, and the ocean motion was horrendous," Greengrass says. "You'd slap down and pitch and yaw, just terrible."
A skeleton crew – the director of photography, the assistant director, the sound operator and the focus puller – crouched around Hanks and three actors playing pirates. Greengrass was on a camera boat nearby, communicating via walkie-talkie, always in whispers so as not to interfere with the actors' concentration. "We started shooting the scene and it wasn't going very well. I whispered to my AD, 'What's going on?'" Greengrass remembers. "He said, 'The focus puller doesn't look very well.' I said, 'Carry on filming, will you?' A few seconds later I hear, 'The focus puller has just thrown up all over Tom's leg.' A second later, 'Now Barry's thrown up.' We ended up pulling everybody out one by one, apart from Tom and the pirates. It was a heck of a physical ordeal. But Tom was inexhaustible. He'd sit there Zen-like as chaos went on around him."
In true docudrama style, the cast and crew came up with the movie's powerful final scene on the fly. "A real captain who'd been at the rescue was on the ship with us," Greengrass says. "He said, 'Well, Phillips was taken to the infirmary.' So we ran down there at the last minute. Everything got very pressured, in a way that was good for filmmaking, because it means you don't think, you just act on blind instinct. We put Tom in there, and had an intense hour of filming that was truly moving. He has an ability to make ordinary men on screen immortal. He captures them in all their humanity in a way that's utterly memorable."
One of the ship's senior officers was standing next to Greengrass as they filmed the scene, and Greengrass saw tears rolling down his cheeks. "He said to me afterward, 'I've seen real trauma in my life, and that's what it looks like. You nailed it,'" Greengrass recalls. "I thought to myself, 'That'll do for me.'"