Captain Phillips: Interview–Paul Greengrass

Starring Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips, which receives its world premiere this Friday at the N.Y. Film Fest, will be released by Son on October 11.

Captain Phillips offers a detailed examination of the 2009 hijacking of the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama by a crew of Somali pirates. Paul Greengrass’s distinctive strategy accounts for a pulse-pounding thriller and a complex portrait of the myriad effects of globalization.

The film focuses on the relationship between the Alabama’s commanding officer, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), and the Somali pirate captain, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who takes him hostage. Phillips and Muse are set on an unstoppable collision when Muse and his crew target Phillips’ unarmed ship. In the ensuing standoff, 145 miles off the Somali coast, both men find themselves at the mercy of forces beyond their control.

In Captain Phillips, director Paul Greengrass charts the emotionally charged story of Somali pirates taking an American sea captain hostage, while simultaneously exposing the underlying economic divide that sets the event in motion.

The story begins in Vermont, where Captain Phillips leaves his family to sail cargo (partially food aid) halfway around the world–and at the same time in Somalia, where a former coastal fisherman, Muse, aims to overtake one of the high-value ships that passes through his coast every day. At the heart of the confrontation between Phillips and the desperate Somali pirates who take him hostage, Greengrass reveals the rift between those who are part of the lucrative ebb and flow of international trade, and those who are caught outside of it.

“We’ve had a lot of very good films in the last decade that have looked at issues of national security and terrorism, but I wanted this film to look at a broader conflict in our world–the conflict between the haves and the have-nots,” says Greengrass. “The confrontation between Phillips, who is part of the stream of the global economy, and the pirates, who are not, felt fresh and new and forward-looking to me. The stand-off between Phillips and Muse is a thrilling high seas siege, but one that speaks to the larger forces shaping the world today.” Greengrass continues, “I’ve always felt that a story should be told in a way that is compelling and thrilling, but also thought-provoking.”

As a former documentarian, Greengrass has long been drawn to stories that dig beneath the surface of contemporary events — from Bloody Sunday, about a British Army massacre in Northern Ireland, to United 93, about the 9/11 hijacking thwarted by passengers, to Green Zone, about the Iraq War. At the same time Greengrass has also emerged as the game-changing director behind high-octane thrillers of refreshing realism — The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Supremacy.

These two strengths–Greengrass’s investigative instinct and his mastery of the thriller form–merge in Captain Phillips. At the core of Greengrass’s approach to Phillips was his decision not to tell the same story of a hostage-rescue triumph that had been seen in news headlines.

“When Paul joined the project, it was clear that he was committed to portraying the events around the Alabama’s hijacking in a much more nuanced way than what had been reported,” says Michael De Luca, who produced the movie with Scott Rudin and Dana Brunetti, and with Brunetti aided Columbia Pictures in acquiring the rights to Phillips’ story. “Paul made it clear from the outset that he wanted to tell the story as authentically as possible,” he adds.

As Greengrass explains: “I want veracity. I want to convey the reality and immediacy of the event, as it happened. And that means immersing ourselves in research during the pre-production stage. I’ve always felt that, from conception to shooting to post-production, you have to earn the right to the audience’s attention and you can’t ever take it for granted.”

Greengrass wanted the film to reflect a complete picture of the world the pirates came from. “Phillips’ book was written from his point of view. But from the beginning, Paul wanted to tell a story that went beyond that,” recalls writer Billy Ray. Co-producer Michael Bronner, Greengrass’s long-time collaborator, dove deep into researching the history of Somali piracy and the economic imperatives that drive it. The depletion of fish in Somali waters due to industrial overfishing was one factor that spurred the growth of the pirate economy on Somalia’s coasts, which had formerly relied on a healthy domestic fish trade. Bronner explains, “Somalia, which has been decimated by civil war since the collapse of its military dictatorship in 1991, was hit around the same time by an influx of illegal fishing, after the EU tightened regulations, driving fleets into new hunting grounds.

Somali piracy essentially began as a reaction to foreign overfishing; former fishermen would hijack ships and hold them ransom as a source of income. When it became clear that this was a profitable activity, it attracted the warlords, under whose power piracy evolved into an organized, transnational enterprise. Somali piracy is organized crime that’s truly global in structure, backed by financiers not only in Africa, but in Europe and North America as well. The boys on the boats sent to attack cargo ships — Muse and his crew — are only the end of a long and complex chain of players who control this very lucrative ‘business.’ The bosses of pirate conglomerates are able to live richly and ostentatiously, in a country where the poverty is so extreme that young men devoid of other prospects literally risk everything to get a taste of that kind of life.”

Bronner supplemented his research into Somali piracy with research into the international shipping industry; he conducted extensive interviews with Maersk executives and the real crewmembers aboard the Alabama during the crisis to gain an understanding of the seaman’s way of life, and the international laws and economics that govern container ships. The Maersk Alabama was unarmed when it was attacked by pirates (as all merchant vessels at that time were, in accordance with international regulations). Shipping officials revealed to Bronner that they had — even in the days and weeks leading up to the Alabama’s hijacking — been discussing ways to mitigate the risks to Maersk vessels navigating dangerous waters.

Ultimately, the attack on the Alabama precipitated changes in the industry, with Maersk and other lines boarding armed guards (many former Navy SEALs) onto their vessels for the most hazardous stretches of their routes.

Captain Phillips was shot over 60 days on the open water. “Shooting this film out on the ocean, on a working ship, was tremendously important to me,” says Greengrass. “I started the film with the conviction that we had to re-enact the event in conditions as close as possible to those in which it occurred. Everybody said, ‘You’re insane — shooting at sea is one of the things you don’t do as a director.’ But it gives the film a veracity that cannot be quantified.”

The decision to shoot on the open sea, using the same kinds of vessels on which the real-life drama had unfolded, meant a production fraught with logistical, physical, and psychological challenges unlike any Greengrass and his crew had encountered before. “Striving for veracity involves taking risks yourself in making the film — as a director, as a cast, and as a crew,” Greengrass explains. “As a piece of filmmaking, this was the most arduous experience I’ve ever had. Being on the ocean all day, every day, shooting in confined spaces or on the open water, in the swell, being knocked around, was torturous. But we did it and we kept our days. In the best of ways, the cast and crew on the film came to feel very much like we were the crew of a ship, all working together,” Greengrass says. “At the same time, each individual job done was incredible.


Columbia Pictures presents Captain Phillips, a Scott Rudin / Michael De Luca / Trigger Street production. The film stars Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, and David Warshofsky. Directed by Paul Greengrass, the film is produced by Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, and Michael De Luca. The screenplay is by Billy Ray, based upon the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty.

The executive producers are Gregory Goodman, Eli Bush, and Kevin Spacey. Also collaborating with Greengrass are director of photography Barry Ackroyd, BSC, editor Christopher Rouse, A.C.E., production designer Paul Kirby, costume designer Mark Bridges, and composer Henry Jackman.

Captain Phillips, which has been rated PG-13, will be released in theaters nationwide on October 11, 2013.