The 51st edition of the New York Film Festival kicked off Friday night with impressive celebrity wattage as mega star Tom Hanks and acclaimed director Paul Greengrass celebrated the world premiere of their edge-of-your-seat thriller “Captain Phillips.”
The docudrama is based on the real-life story of the kidnapping by four Somali pirates of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship in 2009. Earlier in the day at the film’s press conference, a journalist told Greengrass during the Q&A following the screening that the movie was so nerve-wracking he was grateful for Xanax.
From the stage of regal Alice Tully Hall, Greengrass spoke about how moved and honored he felt to have his film open the festival. The director, who was born in Surrey, England, recalled that “it was nearly 40 years since I first came to this great city to start high school” and “it was the East Village that I first dreamed of becoming a director.”
He added, “It’s such a tremendous personal honor to be here in the city that I love that’s been so good to me after many, many years to be opening this great film festival. I was looking at the other films that opened this festival, and I saw in 1967 the film that undoubtedly influenced me more than any other, ‘The Battle of Algiers’ was here. To walk in Gillo Pontecorvo’s shoe’s is also a great honor.” (Last year’s opening night New York Film Festival selection, “Life of Pi,” was nominated for the best picture Oscar, and Ang Lee received the best director statuette.)
Greengrass went on to introduce the star of “Captain Richards,” who came out to excited applause. “I will forever be in his debt, Tom Hanks.” The director added, “This story is obviously based on real events, and I’m very pleased tonight and I know we all are, that Captain Richard Phillips is here.”
Phillips, who has a grey beard, wore a tux and hugged Hanks. The actor then went on to make a big show of straightening Captain Phillips’ bowtie.
Greengrass introduced Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali, who were all plucked from obscurity in Minneapolis to play the desperate Somali pirates, and now looked spiffy in their tailored suits. (They are still scarily skinny.) “They look good, don’t they?” Greengrass cracked.
“I hope you find my film rewarding,” the director said. “Speaking for me, it was one of the most creative – it was hard work! – a lot of us were seasick and most of them were with Tom,” Greengrass said, as the audience laughed.
He added, “I remember this as one of the great, great experiences of my life, so thank you for having this tonight.”
Earlier on the red carpet, Tom Hanks, who had to be rushed inside for the 6 p.m. screening, stopped in his tracks to chat with veteran New York Post celebrity reporter Cindy Adam, about a phone conversation he had with President Obama about the film, in which every journalist with a recorder or camera moved in to eavesdrop on.
I chatted with screenwriter Billy Ray, who’s sure to get an Oscar nomination for his script for “Captain Phillips.”
“I didn’t have to invent anything,” he said about the story and the big draw of why he wanted to do the project. He also had access to Captain Phillips whenever he needed him, either by e-mail or phone.
I mentioned to Ray that I was surprised how moved I was by the political dimension of the story. It is not a black-and-white portrait of the Somali portraits. He shows the Somalis as desperate men with few options; they are caught between vicious warlords who demand they kidnap ships for ransom.
Also, because of globalization, the waterways off the coast of Somali have been depleted of fish, leaving the fishermen without a means to make money legally.
“From the beginning we were very determined that we didn’t want cardboard bad guys,” Ray told me. “That’s just not good writing.”
He said he and Greengrass wanted fully dimensional characters. “Not so much that audiences can sympathize, but so that audiences can understand and maybe recognize a piece of human behavior in those characters. That was very important to me and very important to Paul.”
I asked the screenwriter what was the biggest challenge in bringing the story, ripped from the national headlines, to the screen. “Doing honor to the behavior of these men, these merchant mariners who had survived this thing that I think would have killed me,” Ray said. “I wanted to make sure that we shone a light on them that was appropriate in terms of the dignity in which they carried themselves, and I’m confident that I did.”