The director of a new flick about Somali pirates talks Tom Hanks and why he made the film.
He sees the fast-moving dots on the radar and knows something is wrong. Stepping out onto the bow of the cargo ship, the captain lifts his binoculars and spots two approaching skiffs full of Somali pirates. Thanks to some quick thinking, this merchant marine and his crew manage to ward off the attackers. The next day, however, one of the boats comes after the American vessel again – and this time, Captain Richard Phillips and the crew of the Maersk Alabama aren’t so lucky.
You could give this true story of a 2009 hijacking on the open waters to virtually any filmmaker, and he or she could deliver a fast-paced story filled with suspense, heroism and examples of the resilience of the human spirit in even the most trying of times. Put British director Paul Greengrass at the helm of a screen adaptation of this torn-from-the-headlines tale, however, and what you get is Captain Phillips – a you-are-there docudrama that has the relentless pace of a thriller. Here we quiz the director on his latest project.
Was Tom Hanks already involved with the project when you signed?
He was, yeah. That was another enticement, if I’m being honest. I’d always wanted to work with him.
Can you elaborate?
So you’ve got these guys coming onto the boat, all this chaos is happening, the crew is scrambling down below – and then you cut to Tom, and he suddenly sells the character’s fear and resolve, as well as the enormity of this situation, to you without saying anything! He has a few lines – ‘Thirty degrees starboard,’ and whatnot – but really, it’s all in his facial expressions and his performance. This ordinary merchant-marine captain suddenly finds himself facing this huge existential crisis. And the way Tom shows you all this without some line of dialogue that would tell you everything... it’s astounding. It sets the pace for everything that follows.
Why did you use Somali actors and where did you find them?
We wanted these young men to bring a very real sense of cultural identity and strong Somali voice to these parts. We looked throughout Europe and the UK; in the US, we went to Columbus, Ohio, and Minneapolis – there are vibrant Somali communities, the latter in particular. We held open casting calls, and 800 people showed up to the first one. The quartet we ended up casting actually arrived as a foursome; they all knew each other and were friends. If you look at what they’ve been through, Barkhad Abdi for example, who plays Muse, his life was torn apart by the civil war and he found himself living in Minneapolis as a 14-year-old. He not only adjusts to living in a diaspora, he becomes immersed in art and music and life in America. He talks about how he could have gone a very wrong way, but made a conscious decision not to go down a bad path. All of those actors had stories like that.
Can you talk a little about a scene with Tom Hanks and the sick bay near the end? I understand you guys came up with that on the fly.
The sequence was originally set in the captain’s cabin, several hours after the SEALs had brought him back on board. But after we’d finished, both of us felt something was missing. So I asked a naval officer: When Phillips was taken out of that lifeboat, where is the first place he would have gone? He told me, he’d go straight to the medical bay. So we got Tom all bloodied up again and found the medical officer who was on duty, we whip up this frenzy as everyone rushes to get stuff set up as quickly as possible. We are racing against the clock, they walk Tom into the room, the cameras are rolling – and the minute the medical officer sees him, she goes: ‘So, Captain Phillips, I um, uh.’ It suddenly dawns on her that she’s standing in front of Tom Hanks, and she totally freezes up. But just before she froze, there was something about the look on his face that I thought, oh, there is something here. Tom could feel it too; you could tell he’d keyed into something authentic about this traumatised man, walking into an antiseptic room and finally being able to let go. We told the officer, ‘Forget this is the guy who played Forrest Gump – he’s just a person who’s been through a hostage situation, your job is to calm him down and check him out.’ After that, we did two, maybe three takes, and we knew we’d found it. I mean, it just gave him this space to break down. Watch the humanity he brings to that moment when he just cracks, and you’ll see why Tom Hanks is a great actor. Not a good one, a great one.
Captain Phillips is in cinemas across Dubai from Thursday October 31.