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Captain Phillips - Paul Greengrass interview

Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BRITISH director Paul Greengrass talks about some of the challenges of bringing Captain Phillips to the screen and why he was drawn to the subject matter and this style of filmmaking.

He also talks about making the story as authentic as possible, the importance of casting Somali actors and why he chose to ignore anything regarding a lawsuit that is still taking place involving certain crew members. He was speaking at a press conference to mark the opening of the London Film Festival.

Q. What draws you to making films like Captain Phillips, which combine real excitement with potentially divisive real-life stories? And why this story specifically?
Paul Greengrass: Well, I tried romantic comedy and wasn’t very good at it [laughs]. I like films about what’s going on out there, however you define that. If you can find those stories and they’re dramatic and they’ve got great characters, twists and turns and they can take you out into the world and show you some of the complexities of it.

Q. Most films based on real events omit certain things or take liberties. So, what wwere the omissions you made here, if there were any?
Paul Greengrass: In general, making films based on true stories, there’s a sort of spectrum of where movies operate, from on the one hand being faithful to the historical record and then across the way to taking wide liberties. I don’t make judgements. It’s where you’re most comfortable. Obviously, given my background I’m going to be more comfortable being on that side of the street [being faithful to the historical record]. That said, you’ve got the problem in this case of boiling down a very complicated story into two hours. But we didn’t create characters in that sense – if you want to distinguish things that put you on one side of the street or the other. But you’re making a 1,000 decisions about how to condense things and turn corners.

So, I’ll give you some for instances. We haven’t created characters that didn’t exist. We haven’t created great swathes of story that didn’t exist. The sorts of things we’ve omitted and here I’ll give you a for instance. When the four pirates got on the ship, that was at about 7 or 8am. When Phillips was put in the lifeboat, that was roughly speaking 5 or 6pm, so you’ve got an eight or nine hour period which, in the film, is probably 15 minutes. During that time, all the members of the crew are acting in concert and several different individuals, particularly Mike Perry, the engineer, and Shane Murphy, are moving around the ship in quite complicated ways. There’s also various movements on the bridge because Phillips and the guys on the bridge are held hostage but the pirates are making various moves with them and moving around the ship.

You have to distil information in a way that’s fair and I wanted to show that the crew were as much a part of the story in the early stage as Phillips reflect that. It felt to me like an important point. Secondly, I wanted to acknowledge the particular contribution of Mike Perry and Shane Murphy, because, although their movements around the ship were quite complicated, in the end when you boil them down to what was their goal and what did they achieve, Mike Perry did this very important thing of switching the emergency generator off and I wanted to reflect that Shane Murphy was acting in command for the welfare of his crew. He wanted to get water and supplies because he thought they were going to be locked down there for days, and the whole issue of the glass. So, in that compression, we were very fair.

We also compressed the circumstances in which Phillips got into the lifeboat. Initially, there was a lot of discussion for about an hour with the pirates about whether they should go in the open boat, as there was a smaller boat as well as a lifeboat. So, when it turned out that the mechanical arm didn’t work and they moved to the lifeboat, there’s a piece that I omitted because it’s irrelevant really. What happened and what was really important was that Phillips got into the lifeboat in order to ensure that they left the ship… that was the material point and show that he was double crossed. We omitted some of the shoe leather of that. Did it affect the story and the veracity of it? No, I don’t think it did. So, there’s two examples of the sorts of corners and compressions that you have to make. But in essence, we spent a lot of time researching this and speaking to all members of the crew, etc, etc, and I’m very comfortable about this as a fair and accurate account of this event. I’d stand by the methodology that I use… same as United 93, same as Bloody Sunday and any other film, for that matter, from my point of view.

Q. What is it about the London Film Festival so special and how does it feel to have your film open it?
Paul Greengrass: Well, it’s obviously from my point of view as someone who lives here, it’s a great honour and a privilege. I love the festival. I think it’s an important festival and I think it’s growing in importance. I think we tend to underestimate its importance. Unlike other festivals, what I think is very, very good about the London festival is that it takes place in a city where a lot of movies are made. And that distinguishes it, I think, in a very powerful way. And I don’t think that’s said often enough. We talk about some of the other festivals around the world and elsewhere in Europe but what distinguishes this festival is that it’s a major international festival in a major international filmmaking centre and a major domestic filmmaking centre. So, that gives it a particular vibrancy I think.

Q. How did you find the actors who are playing the Somali pirates and are they real actors or did you choose them because they fit with the characters?
Paul Greengrass: It was very important that we cast Somali actors to play those parts. That felt to me a fundamental part of achieving authenticity. Obviously, there’s no Somali acting community in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago, so we went to Minneapolis, which has the largest Somali population in the US and we cast a lot of the smaller parts – the guys from the other skiff, the guys on the mothership and in the village – from the UK. The four main parts came from the US and we had large open castings. It’s a fantastically creative community filled with actors and musicians and filmmakers; it just hasn’t had that chance in the mainstream. So, what I thought would be a difficult process actually uncovered an abundance of rich talent and those four young men did a wonderful job.

Q. Can you talk about shooting at sea on a real boat? Can you tell me about your worst experience and how difficult it was?
Paul Greengrass: Well, it was pretty difficult. The worst, actually, was the lifeboat. We did some of those scenes on a sound stage on a gimble, but we started on the ocean and that thing was a truly horrendous experience because it’s very small and you’re low down and you’re crammed in there. The first day we started shooting, Tom was in there with the four guys playing the pirates and Barry Ackroyd, the DOP, and the focus-puller, and Chris Careras, my AD, and I was next door in a small boat with a walkie-talkie. We started the scene and it was kind of going okay but I was anxious to drive on. I spoke to Chris and whispered: “What’s going on?” He said: “The focus puller doesn’t look so good.” But I said: “I don’t care, just shoot will you?” And he said: “Focus puller has just thrown up all over Tom.” And I said: “Just keep shooting.” And he said: “Now Barry’s thrown up too!” So, that gives you a little insight.

Q. Did you have any hidden cameras on the set?
Paul Greengrass: We didn’t have any hidden cameras but hopefully they got forgotten about. That’s slight different. The way that the shooting takes place, the environment, I wanted it to take place in a way that the actors are entirely free and can play their parts in as uninhibited a manner as they possibly can and then it’s the job of Barry and myself to observe that performance as unobtrusively as you possibly can. But they [the cameras] weren’t not declared.

Q. Can you comment on the film being more action-oriented than A Hijacking, the law suits involving the real Captain Phillips and on making perceived propaganda for the US NAVY?
Paul Greengrass: It was just happenstance that A Hijacking was being made at the same time I got interested in this story. I really admire him [Tobias Lindholm] as a filmmaker. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing it. In terms of the lawsuit between some members of the crew and the vessel’s Corporation, I can’t speak to a lawsuit that has been going almost since the events took place. What I can tell you is this: when I started this project, the first thing I did – and I did the same with United 93 and Bloody Sunday and any film of this type – was to find out what the facts are and in that sense the job is not dissimilar [to journalism]. You have to make judgments based on the assessments that you make, based on the material in front of you. That involved speaking to every member of the crew, satisfying myself about what actually happened and making judgments about that. I 100% stand by the picture of the relationship between Phillips and the crew with regards to the matters pertaining to how that ship came to be in those waters. That is, to my mind, an accurate account of what those events were. So, don’t misunderstand me in any way about that. If you’re suggesting I haven’t reflected a true account, then I completely reject that. That’s not the case.

It’s very easy to report as fact an assertion just because a court case has begun, and which incidentally has not been completed. That doesn’t make it a fact. I can’t comment on the legal situation, I can only comment on what I believe to be the case. And I stand by my version just as you would stand by yours. So that’s that issue.

Is it a promotional film for the US Navy? Well, wow! I think I’m probably known in the business [sarcasm] as being a for-hire military guy. I don’t know what you can say about a question like that. I don’t believe so. If that’s how you read it, that’s your opinion. I think it’s a bit more complex than that, but then I think the world is a very complex place. But you know, the wondrous thing about cinema is that it’s in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?

Read our review of Captain Phillips

Read our interview with Tom Hanks