“Captain Phillips” is probably the biggest nail-biter of a movie I’ve seen in years. I actually trembled through much of it and can’t wait to see it again. I attended a press screening on Sept. 27, 2013 as part of the New York Film Festival, followed by a press conference where Tom Hanks, director Paul Greengrass, and actor Barkhad Abdi appeared.
Based on the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama freighter by Somali pirates, the film stars Hanks as real life Richard Phillips, who was the captain of the ship. Phillips ended up being kidnapped by the pirates and going through an experience that is more harrowing than most of us could begin to fathom. Believe it or not, he returned to his job and continues to sail.
The film is just shy of 2-1/4 hours, but the actual ordeal lasted several days. Greengrass has a background as a documentarian, and you can see that influence in what are extremely realistic scenes. Oddly, however, the first scene with dialogue stood out to me as just the opposite. It’s one of the few scenes in which Phillips’ wife (played by Catherine Keener) appears, and the dialogue is stilted and unrealistic, as they talk about how “the times, they are a-changin’.”
Luckily, the very next scene takes us to Somalia, where the pirates get ready to go on their quest for a ship to rob, and it’s absolutely believable. From that point forward, the movie grabs you and holds onto you until the very end.
The actors playing the pirates had never been in a film before. The casting people put out a call for Somali-Americans and found true diamonds in the rough among these young men. Their extraordinary performances are a tribute to both their raw talent and director Greengrass’ ability to help them bring out that talent. It’s easy to forget they are actors.
Abdi plays the leader of the pirates. He hit the jackpot, as his first film will no doubt be an Oscar contender. During the press conference, he seemed a bit shy and overwhelmed by all of the “hoopla.” He said he’d like to do some more acting; I just hope he doesn’t get stereotyped and is allowed to explore what appears to be a significant amount of natural ability.
One of the most interesting stories that came up during the conference is one that I won’t quote because I don’t want to give away the final scene of the film. What I’ll say is that the scene is very moving, and it was not in the original script.
They ended up shooting it on the fly with real military personnel, who simply acted in the way they would if the event were actually taking place. Everyone improvised, and it was accomplished in four or five takes over 1-1/2 hours. When you see it, you’ll understand what a testament it is to Hanks’ gifts as an actor.
Below are some of the highlights from the Q&A.
On the challenges of making a film about a true story:
Greengrass: These events unfolded over four or five days, and you’ve got the challenge of compression. Actually, that is the central challenge that we faced – how to compress these events and stay true to the fundamentals. But I think we did. I think the fundamentals of what happened are there on screen…
Hanks: I explained to Phillips, “I will say things you never said, and I will be places you never were. But if we do this right, thematically, we’ll be spot-on with the nature of what happened to [you].”
It’s a very environmental movie, shooting it as we did on board more or less an identical ship to the Alabama at sea or in various small confines. So, I think that the task and folding ourselves into Paul’s good hands is always to be true to the motivations of everybody that is involved. When, for the sake of storytelling, you start manufacturing moments that truly were not part of the five or six days, then I think you get into trouble there.
I can probably walk you through this and say, “That’s a moment that didn’t happen exactly, but thematically, it is what happened.” And that’s tricky and can get away from you, but we were always searching for that combination of procedure and behavior that were going to be not just reminiscent but very reflective of what really happened. And that’s tough when you’re doing non-fiction entertainment.
On how to portray Somali pirates in a dimensional way:
Greengrass: There’s a great challenge in this film, which is how do you present young men who are intent on violence and mayhem, kidnapping and piracy? How do you present that in a way that’s truthful? In other words, you don’t sentimentalize what they’re about. You are clear about its moral essence, which is dark and dangerous, and yet, find by degrees the humanity of that so you get a portrait of complexity and humanity.
Hanks: Well, Barkhad was on that skiff for an awful long time out there. They all ask him, “Hey, how did you shoot those scenes where you were in the middle of the ocean in that speed boat?” And he’ll have to say, “Well, they put us on a speed boat in the middle of an ocean.” [laughter]
Abdi: Yeah, it wasn’t as easy as it looks in the movie. I didn’t even know how to swim. [laughter] Really, yeah! But we did a lot of practice…
Hanks: There was one day we were actually getting shots in the lifeboat on the actual water in Malta, and everybody who was not an actor in the lifeboat ended up vomiting…. We [the actors] got to just sit down and sort of close our eyes and pitch around a little bit. But those guys actually had to work; it was terrible.
Greengrass: I was on the camera boat right next door, and I had a walkie-talkie and the message came through, “We’ve got a problem over here.” I said, “What’s the problem?” [They said,] “The focus puller’s just been sick all over Tom. So’s Barry. So’s the sound man.”
Hanks on how he gets into playing a real person:
Hanks: You have to load up with an awful lot of facts, quite frankly. You’ve got to read, you’ve got to look at video, and you’ve got to listen to stuff. But there’s always some sort of detail that makes the final tumbler lock into place. I saw Rich and Andrea [Phillips] on a couple of occasions, and you don’t want to be an idiot. You don’t want to ask, “What was it like? What were you feeling? Are you a hero?” You don’t ask questions like most journalists do. [laughter]
“What’s it like?” Cheap shot, folks, but listen, be on my end one of these days! They say, “But you just keep giving the same answers.” [I say,] “Well, they are the same questions!”
But Andrea said something that was quite interesting. I asked, “Do you ever visit Rich on these ships?” She said, “I used to, but it’s no fun because Rich is a completely different human being when he’s on board and on the job. He’s very easygoing. I would describe him as almost happy-go-lucky and funny, but on board the ship, it’s always serious.” And that was the tumbler for me.
“Captain Phillips” opens in theaters on Oct. 11, 2013.