The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Captain Phillips.
You were shooting in environmental conditions that were extremely difficult. Can you talk about those challenges?
Greengrass: The first day we shot in the lifeboat was really intense. The boat pitches around and drops. The seats are really low and it stinks of diesel. Tom [Hanks] was in there, the four other actors were in there, our DP Barry was in there with the focus puller, and Chris Carreras, my AD. I was in a little boat next door with a walkie-talkie. They started the scene and it’s going well, and then Chris goes “I don’t think the focus puller looks very good.” I said, “Don’t worry about that, keep shooting.” And then a second later, it was “The focus puller has thrown up all over Tom.” And I said, “Keep shooting!” And then it was “Barry doesn’t look very good.”
Hanks: The first time I actually saw the human form of Barkhad [Abdi] was when they were in the skiff out on the water through binoculars, literally how Phillips first sees him in the film. So I say to Paul, “Hey I saw the stunt men down in the skiffs getting that shot.” And he says, “Those weren’t the stunt men, those were the real fellas.” So Barkhad has to talk about learning to drive that boat in the high-pitched seas, it was crazy.
Abdi: We went through about a month and a half of training – swimming, fighting, weapons, and the skiff. I had to learn how to stand in the skiff, and also how to drive someone around. It wasn’t easy, and there were times I got seasick. But we all had the dedication. This was something I always wanted to do but never had the chance, so I made the best of it.
“At heart, performance is about removing all those inhibitions, and then you start to tell stories.”
What was the most difficult scene to shoot?
Greengrass: All of it! Well, I think my favorite is that scene at the end [after Phillips is rescued]. It’s so superbly played and it happened in such unusual circumstances. It goes a bit to the heart of what filmmaking actually is, which is a collaborative experience. That was a scene that Billy wrote originally to take place hours later, after Phillips was saved and showered, and he was sent up to the quarters to phone home. The idea was that he would find that the safety would leave him in shock. So Billy was right, we needed that moment to complete the film. When we shot that scene during the day it was fine, it was okay, but it wasn’t “it”. Then you hit that bit of filmmaking that is always crucial, which is chance, and it happened that the real Captain Castellano was on the ship that day and he said “Oh that first happened in the infirmary.” So we went down the infirmary to have a go at the scene there. Then you hit the next level of filmmaking, which is blind panic, when you go “Let’s try this, it’s 5PM, and we only have an hour left.” That can be a good place because pure instinct takes over. And we went down and there was a young medical officer, and I told her, “It’s just a very straightforward scene, imagine an exercise, and don’t worry about the fact that it’s Tom Hanks!” And she looked a bit perturbed. And then we shot the scene and it worked.
Hanks: So much of this movie was procedure. The crew was great at explaining everything they do on the deck. Learning all that and the language was a luxury because there was always a specific thing to do and a specific reason for it, and it helped with realistic timing. After that came the other hard part of our job, which is behavior. And that last scene was the perfect mixture of both procedure and behavior. It was definitely a procedure practiced by the Navy crew there, and it was the behavior of something we had been working on for about 12 weeks, so we were able to let it roll.
How was it to act the part of a Somali pirate, having grown up in Minneapolis?
Abdi: I was born in Somalia and left there when I was seven years old. I witnessed the war for about a year. And I still see people that come to Minneapolis from Somalia and they have all sorts of stories. I kind of have a feel for how piracy started and the main motivation that these people have to do it. And Paul was there to help me and talk me through all the scenes.
Hanks: When we were shooting the scenes, there was a substantial amount of improv and immediacy to it all. I didn’t know what Barkhad was saying to the other actors until I saw the movie and could read the subtitles. And the accurately translated vernacular was “What’s wrong with you stupid?” and lines like that. As soon as we stopped shooting, they’d all start arguing in Somali about the scene they just shot.
How do you create a safe environment for your actors?
Greengrass: I think you need the confidence to know it can happen. When I was young, I used to imagine I was physically behind the camera, because I was very confident in using a camera. I was less confident about the process of performance. You have to psychologically inhabit the space where the acting is done, and remove its power to inhibit. When we are children, we make believe easily. When we grow up, we grow inhibitions. At heart, performance is about removing all those inhibitions, and then you start to tell stories. You let your actors feel the fun of trying something, and then make the ask bigger, and try different things together. It takes time, rehearsal time, but then you see the company of actors start to make sense, and it’s magical moment. It’s a bit like conducting. Slowly you create this ballad, this dance, and everyone starts to make it real. It’s the most thrilling thing.