Captain Phillips: Greengrass on Making his Epic

“Captain Phillipswhich also earned nominationss as best film and for the two actors, Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. Here, Greengrass talks about casting the Somali actor, pays tribute to screenwriter Billy Ray and his other collaborators

Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd

Physically, it was extremely difficult, because we were shooting with water and confined spaces with profound amounts of motion. I don’t know how he does it.

Initially, we both were quite tempted to shoot digitally, but in the end, when we got into the amounts of motion, the fact that we were on water and that supply was going to be quite difficult, I was anxious about the risks, but digital was a safer choice. Then we had a lot of discussion how we were going to handle the motion, especially stuff in the skiffs where the motion is so aggressive. To be in there gave us the ability to create more stability in the shot than 35m and gave us a lens with a greater sense of attack but still be physical.

Those were two long discussions, but then it was a question of addressing each of the environments in their terms, so that the film expressed experience of being on the ocean and being in very confined spaces.

The mixture of claustrophobia and wide-open expanse, both of which are quite frightening in a way; and the vast disparity of physical sizes of the crafts: tiny skiffs and huge warships. We also talked about how to convey heat, in the end, when you’ve worked closely w someone and we both come from the same background of British documentaries, so much of our dialog is shorthand because we share the same aesthetic.

Script: Billy Ray

It was an interesting collaboration. He and I disagreed about absolutely everything except the things that were importants why the film has this shape, where it builds to the moment when Phillips is thrown in lifeboat, about halfway through and then you get a long buildup again, starting with his move into the lifeboat. That was an instinct we shared, the dramatic prism of the story is the two captains being at the heart of the film. We had a lot of fun and good humor.

In the end, filmmaking is a contact sport. It’s about will and struggle, and contention and creative collision, and out of that process you want an environment where the best ideas can come to the top and you need to create conditions where people can speak honestly. That’s what Billy and I did and that’s why it was a good collaboration.

Editing: Christopher Rouse

The rhythm is actually quite sedate. The rhythm is quite controlled for quite a long time, then gathers pace and moves and moves to climax halfway through. Then it slows again and controlled build-up, then plows again toward the climax, so it’s actually quite a cunningly structured film in terms of its pace. Chris, he’s at the heart of my films, this is the fifth we’ve made together, he’s a brilliant editor. Chris and I share the same aesthetic and the same narrative instincts: A film should have clear storytelling and characters, and the acceleration should be matched with accuracy and tightness of focus. I don’t like when pace accelerates and the focus becomes more generalized as a filmmaker tries to create energy. Chris, like me, believes as you develop pace, what you need to do is be even more unswerving in your commitment to clarity, focus, accuracy and above all and character. Action is character in motion. There is no greater advocate of that philosophy than Chris.

I believe in holistic filmmaking, where the closest collaborators Barry, Chris, Chris Carreras first a.d., we move forward together, I want all of us solving problems together from the outset. That means the editorial voice is strong from the beginning of the process. And by the time I’m producing rushes, Chris has a strong view.

People like Chris have powerful POV and you have to give them freedom to create their interpretation, and then you can begin a rolling, multifaceted conversation. That’s what the process of filmmaking is. With those key people who know my instincts sometimes before I do. Because we share philosophical instincts, and filmmaking instincts, you create this very tight group. And you can get the best out of your actors. You’re putting film in a strong, confident place, there’s a bedrock of shared instincts and experiences to attack the new film.

Casting: Francine Maisler

When you’re making a film, you always look back and see a number of decisions you made and think “Bloody hell, if I’d made that decision another way, the film would have been very different.” One of them was was a fundamental choice, that I wanted to shoot this on the ocean with real vessels, for better or worse. That would create challenges, but we’d gain veracity, authenticity.

Another absolutely fundamental choice: The Somali parts need to be played by Somalis. It’s a place that has a story and the only people who could tell that story are the Somalis. And Somalis look very distinctive. You can’t cast North Africans, they look very different.

At the core of drama was to explore the Somali existence and to have authenticity in those parts. It gave so much weight to the piece and made the dilemma of Phillips so much more real. If this was Tom Hanks in a boat with some Hollywood bad guys, it wouldn’t have been the same film. But it became Tom Hanks with four men armed with AK-47s who you realize have nothing to lose.

It became a simple proposition: “Francine, how can we find Somali actors?” The problem is, there is no Somali acting community in L.A. or N.Y. So we decided to look for smaller parts in U.K., because there IS a Somali community there. And that led to the four main parts, and we decided to look in Minneapolis, which has the largest Somali community in the States. Francine looked indefatigably. I think 800 people showed up the first day. It’s a vibrant and creative community, filled with poets and musicians who had never found their way into the mainstream. Those four guys came in together for the audition. They had a real definition and commitment among them. And of course Barkhad (Abdi) had charisma; his face is part of the story. You see the menace but also the humanity.