Captain Phillips: press conference with Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass
The Maersk Alabama cargo ship was attacked by Somali pirates off the horn of Africa in 2009. Starring Tom Hanks and directed by Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips is a pitch-perfect thriller charting the attack, the panicked pirates’ retreat by lifeboat taking the captain as a hostage, and his eventual rescue by US armed forces.
Critic Dave Calhoun was joined by director Paul Greengrass and lead Tom Hanks at the Mayfair Hotel in advance of Captain Phillips’ opening of the 2013 London Film Festival.
Bloody Sunday, United 93 and now Captain Phillips – each of them stories ripe with controversy. Paul Greengrass, what’s the attraction for you of this sort of tale and this story specifically?
Paul Greengrass: I tried doing romantic comedies but I wasn’t very good at them. I like films that are dramatic and have great characters and twists and turns, that can take you out into the world and show you some of the complexities of it.
Playing a man who went through this experience only a very short while ago and who’s still very much living, Tom Hanks, do those things bring with them extra responsibilities?
Tom Hanks: I think the responsibility goes hand in hand with any time you’re going to stand up in public and say: “Hey, I’ve got a story to tell!” There is both an advantage and a pressure that comes with something that is non-fiction-ish. But if you’re smart about it you have very little that you need to make up. The responsibility aspect is that you have to hew as closely to the truth as possible. In one of the first meetings I had with Rich I said: “I’m going to say things you never said and do things you did not do.” But that’s a trade-off for any of the other responsibilities you have when making a movie that’s completely made-up.
What were the omissions you made from the real story?
PG: We haven’t created characters that didn’t exist, or great swathes of events. When the four pirates got on the ship it was 7am, when Richard was taken hostage on the lifeboat it was 6pm – but we condense that to around 15 minutes of film. You’ve got to distil all that in a way that is fair. I wanted to acknowledge the crew’s involvement as much as Rich Phillips’, Mike Perry’s and Shane Murphy’s. We also compressed how Captain Phillips got into the lifeboat – what was important was that he got into the lifeboat to ensure the pirates left the ship, so we omitted some of the gratuitous detail. Did my changes affect the veracity of it all? I don’t think they did.
Tom Hanks, how did you manage this incredible, emotional final breakdown scene?
TH: That’s a secret. I’m not going to give that up. I like to consider myself something of a creative artist and a professional and my job is to be able to get there when the moment comes.
What is it about this festival that’s special?
PG: Unlike other festivals, what is very, very good about the London Festival is it takes place in a city where a lot of movies are made. 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.
TH: It may put other film festivals out of business. Venice may crumble. Deauville might go away. Toronto will become an asterisk. They’re really throwing down the gauntlet here in London.
How did you find the Somali pirates? Are they real actors?
PG: It was very important to me that we cast Somali actors. We went to Minneapolis, which has the largest Somali community in the US, and the four main parts came from these open castings. They’re a wonderfully creative community full of musicians and actors – so what I thought would be a difficult process turned out to be a pleasure.
What kind of impression did the real Captain Phillips make on you?
TH: He’s kind of goofy. When I met him he was only wearing socks, watching the game on the barca lounger. We started talking about how he came to be a captain. The more human details that came along were very helpful for me. Like, in the long days in the lifeboat there were moments of hilarity; they made him demonstrate his knot-tying expertise. He was also aware of his captors’ Ghat withdrawal – the stimulant they chew – they were running out of it. And during the day it would get up to 117 degrees, so there was a lot of sweat and it began to smell very, very bad. Also Andrea, his wife, said that Rich at home is one of the nicest people around, but Rich at work is one of the most unpleasant humans in the world.
The film was shot at sea on a real boat. What was your worst experience?
PG: The worst was the lifeboat. It’s low-down, cramped, hot… I was in a second boat and on the first day of shooting I was warned:
“The focus puller doesn’t look too good.”
“I don’t care,” I said.
“The focus puller’s just thrown up on Tom.”
“Bill’s not looking too good either.”
TH: It was an authentic shot of hell.
Mr Hanks, in your 35-year career there have been parts for which you’ve put on weight, and others for which you’ve lost weight. You have Type 2 diabetes – were you aware of the risk at the time, and do you have any advice for actors who do the same as you, such as Russell Crowe?
TH: You’re trying to tie me into a quote on Russell Crowe aren’t you? I didn’t blaze any territory by saying that something’s going to kill me. Something’s going to do the job at some point; I don’t think it’ll be diabetes. Gaining weight may have had something to do with me developing it in the first place, but I think it goes back to my lifestyle from age seven and my genetic make-up more than anything else. I’ve spoken to a number of other actors who have put on weight, and the physical toll on your knees and shoulders is enough to put me off it. That’s a young man’s game.
Do you think you made a US Navy promo rather than a true film?
PG: I don’t believe so. I think it’s a bit more complex than that. But the wondrous thing about cinema is that it’s in the eye of the beholder.
Photos: Eamonn M. McCormack
Captain Phillips is released nationwide on 18th October 2013.
Watch the trailer for Captain Phillips here: