In April 2009, Somali pirates boarded an American-flagged container ship and took its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage on a small lifeboat. That led to a five-day drama at sea, much of it covered on television, as a U.S. Navy destroyer tailed the lifeboat and Navy SEAL sharpshooters eventually freed the captain. In 2010 Phillips wrote a memoir called A Captain's Duty and the harrowing experience has now been adapted into a film called Captain Phillips.
Captain Phillips is directed by Paul Greengrass and stars Tom Hanks, both of whom join Fresh Air's Dave Davies to talk about the film. Greengrass began his career as a journalist making documentaries, often in war zones. His feature films — including The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Bloody Sunday and United 93 — are known for fast-paced action and documentary-like drama. Hanks is a two-time Academy Award winner, getting back-to-back best actor Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. He also got Oscar nominations for his roles in Big, Saving Private Ryan and Cast Away.
On what drew them to the story
Hanks: The story itself was ... ripped right out of today's headlines. But all of the little intricacies of how a ship like that is run, and the details of the nature of the Somalis, and the particulars of everything that happened in those crucial hours on the ship and the days in the lifeboats was loaded with human behavior that was fascinating, compelling and unknown. ... There's a way of making this movie in which it pays most attention to the crackerjack action aspect of it — and that was always going to be a part of it in my head. But the particulars of how a guy like Richard Phillips starts working out this algorithm in his head the moment he first sees the pirate skipper approaching, that was brand new territory.
Greengrass: I really wanted the experience of shooting on the ocean. Part of that was personal, my father was in the Merchant Marine and was at sea all his life so I wanted to explore his world. But also from the film point of view, I felt it would be a more authentic film if we all shot it together on the ocean and we had the real ships. ... We were on the sister ship [to Phillips' ship, the Maersk Alabama] ... it was an identical ship, it had a crew, we could draw information from the crew, and draw information and veracity from the actual environment. I think it made it an endlessly fascinating experience [and] a richly creative one from a filmmaking point of view.
On the difficulties of shooting on the water
Greengrass: Filmmaking is about resources, you need to be able to supply your units, your camera units, your sound units, you need to be able to get all your costumes and makeup and all the infrastructure of it — chargers, walkie-talkies, everything. ... It's not like saying, "Can you just get Joe to run a couple of walkie-talkies up to the stage?" Well, if you're 20 miles out to sea, that's quite a prodigious operation, and you've got to climb up 30-40 feet of ladder. So just the sheer logistics are difficult.
And then you've got the weather, which is a profound issue. A lot of the shooting of this involved very small crafts, those skiffs, and what I wanted to make the film play was water that was dangerous enough to make it so you understood the drama of a skiff attack on a fast-moving container ship, but obviously that involves very large safety issues. We needed sea that was aggressive enough to be dynamic but not so aggressive that it was dangerous or too dangerous.
On Somali pirates and how Greengrass cast them in the movie
Greengrass: Somali piracy is international organized crime, that's actually what it is. These young men with their AK-47s attack from the coast of Somalia, but this is activity that is financed and organized thousands of miles away in Kenya and Nigeria and ultimately in Europe and in some cases in the U.S.; it's a highly organized criminal activity. The young men who are the guys that actually attack the ships, they're just the triggermen in essence, and of course they come from a country that's everything you'd expect and associate with a failed state: collapsed central government, warlordism, crime, gangs, terrorism in certain parts of the country. It's everything you'd imagine and more, and what you want in this film is to portray something of that with authenticity, there's nothing more dangerous than a young man with a gun who's got nothing left to lose.
It became important, from my point of view, to find young Somali actors to play those parts, and that was the real central challenge of the casting process. ... There's no Somali acting community in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago so we had to go to Minneapolis where the largest Somali community is and what we found there was a very vibrant and rich and storied community, filled with musicians, actors, filmmakers, writers. ... So what began as [what] I thought would be a very difficult endeavor became very quickly simple. We had 7- or 800 people turn up for the first casting and very quickly we identified Barkhad Abdi and his three friends, as it turned out.
On keeping the Somali actors and Hanks' crew separate to make the fear feel authentic
Greenglass: I didn't want them to have become friends because in the end the job was to come through that door and terrorize and threaten and be believable. So we kept them apart, and it's sort of the trick you play, I'm afraid, when you're a director. You're trying to create moments that everybody is looking forward to in a shoot ... something that's two, three weeks down the road where everybody is going, "That's going to be an exciting day when those two groups meet each other." And I think it got everybody excited, and there was a good tension in the air.
Hanks: We figured out in the crew, "We're not going to meet these guys, are we? It's not going to be a party at the hotel ..." We had seen little dots on the horizon because they had been working on the skiffs far away ... it was tense. We were scared in the best way possible because we know the guns aren't loaded, but those guys ... came in pumped up with all of the anxiety of being there in the first place, and all the expertise they had learned, all the work they had done, so ... when they blew that door open and came in screaming at us, I saw four of the skinniest, scariest human beings on the planet and the hair did stand up on the back of our heads. It was chaotic. It seemed like the rules had gone right out the window. In one way, we're just trying to survive the scene.
On having real Navy personnel taking care of Hanks after he is rescued
Hanks: Paul just said [to the Navy rep], "Well, what would you do?" And she just ran through, "Well, I'd try to get his focus. I'd try to talk to him. I'd try to find out how badly he's wounded. I'd try to figure out what blood is his. I'd try to figure out if there's any internal bleeding. I'd take his vital stats."
She had a whole procedure equal to an emergency medical technician. So we cranked it, let fly, the very first take fell apart for technical reasons and it was loaded with moments of great self-consciousness, even from the Navy folks. ... [We said to them] "There's nothing you can say that's incorrect and there's nothing you can do that is not going to be worthwhile. So go ahead and do it." And we did five or six versions of it over a dizzying period of time.
... What I was working from was actual photographs and a little bit of home video of Phillips on board the [destroyer USS] Bainbridge when people are congratulating him saying, "Welcome home." And he's in an absolute daze, you can see in his body language and in his eyes, he's barely cognizant of the surreal reality of what has just happened to him and on top of that, it was a very nice lady and a very crack team being sweet to Rich Phillips, so it ended up being kind of evocative.
... [What] she says that is just heartrending ... is, "You're OK. You're going to be OK." And those are the greatest words that a human being could hear in that circumstance.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guests are Tom Hanks, the star of the new movie "Captain Phillips," and Paul Greengrass, the film's director. It's based on the memoir by Captain Richard Phillips about an incident four years ago, when Phillips was the captain of an American-flagged container ship that was boarded by Somali pirates.
They captured Captain Phillips and held him hostage on a small lifeboat, leading to a five-day drama at sea, much of it covered on television, as a U.S. Navy destroyer tailed the lifeboat and Navy SEAL sharpshooters eventually freed the captain. Director Paul Greengrass began his career as a journalist, making documentaries, often in war zones.
Among his films are "The Bourne Supremacy," "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93." Tom Hanks is a two-time Oscar winner. Hanks and Phillips spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. They began with a clip from "Captain Phillips." The pirates have boarded the ship and are shooting their way through security gates, trying to reach Captain Phillips, played by Hanks, who's on the ship's bridge.
The captain speaks to his crew through a handheld radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")
TOM HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) Four pirates onboard, four pirates. (Unintelligible) down the main deck. Lock down the bridge. Listen up. We have been boarded by four armed pirates. You know the drill. We stay hidden no matter what. I don't want any hostages.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) (Speaking foreign language)
HANKS: (As Phillips) We stay locked down until help arrives. No one comes out until you hear the non-duress password from me, which is suppertime. Jesus. If the pirates find you, remember, you know the ship, they don't. Make them feel like they're in charge, but keep them away from the important things like the generator and the engine controls.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) (Speaking foreign language)
HANKS: (As Phillips) Stick together, and we'll be all right. Good luck.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tom Hanks, what appealed to you about this role?
HANKS: The details of everything that happened. The story itself is writ very large. It was covered in the media. You could say it was like ripped right out of today's headlines. But all of the little intricacies of how a ship like that is run and the details of the nature of the Somalis and the particulars of everything that happened in those crucial hours onboard the ship and then in the days in the lifeboat was loaded with human behavior that I thought was fascinating, compelling and unknown.
There's a style of making this movie, there's a way of making this movie in which it pays most attention, I think, to sort of like the Cracker Jack action aspect of it, and that was always going to be a part of it in my head. But the particulars of how a guy like Richard Phillips starts working out this algorithm in his head the moment he first sees the pirate skiff approaching, that was brand new territory.
DAVIES: Now, Paul Greengrass, you know, there are filmmaking techniques, high-tech filmmaking techniques, including computer-generated graphics, that will allow you to, you know, create a ship being chased by pirates or broken in half by a hurricane without anybody having to get wet or seasick. You chose a different route. Why?
PAUL GREENGRASS: Well, I mean several reasons, really. I really wanted the experience of shooting on the ocean. Partly that was personal, my father was in the Merchant Marine and was at sea all his life, so I sort of wanted to explore his world, really. But also from the film point of view, I felt it would be a more authentic film if we all shot it together on the ocean and we had the real ships.
And that was, as it proved, you know, I think it meant that everybody, you know, for instance, was on the sister ship of the Maersk Alabama, it was an identical ship, it had a crew, it meant we could draw information from the crew and draw information and veracity from the actual environment. And I think it made it an endlessly fascinating experience, but a richly kind of creative one from a filmmaking point of view.
DAVIES: So you had a real container ship like the one that was in the actual incident. Tom Hanks, you want to talk about what shooting in a ship on the ocean, how that was different than it might have been on a soundstage, what it added to your performance?
HANKS: Well, it's actually a wonderful thing to have in your pocket. You're in the environment. You're not having to re-create the environment. So much of working on a soundstage is utilizing your imagination and the arts and crafts of the people who build sets and design them. Well, here we were in the - we were on a real bridge, and all the controls actually did operate the ship. There were some things we were not allowed to touch, and we shouldn't push that button.
But as Paul said, there was - we had a constant source of information about filling up the procedures and the behavior of what it takes in every circumstance we were on, on the boat, on the ship. So to be an actor and actually walking up and down those many, many stairways, up and down to the bridge, it just made it an environmental experience, as opposed to just a pretend one.
DAVIES: Did you pick anything up from the crew?
HANKS: Oh, oceans of - how about I use that, oceans, oceans of information, Dave.
DAVIES: Right, a bottomless source of detail. Can you think of a detail that you picked up from the crew that you think kind of just helped with the authenticity of it?
HANKS: There is a - for the captain, there is a never-ending series of pressures that are - some of it is paperwork, some of it is human behavior, much of it is physics, a lot of it is science and weather, that never go away. For example, both Richard Phillips and the captain of the actual Maersk Alexander we were on says he begins and ends his day with a walk-around of the entire ship, and that means the entire ship, every square inch of and down below.
And he's just looking, they're just looking to see that - of what might happen, and you'd be amazed at how often a bolt is not in place, or something is not lashed down correctly, and when that happens, the next thing you know, you can lose half of your deck-board cargo.
The attention to detail and I think the professionalism of all the people that I saw was fascinating. There's one night that we were moving from one port to the other, and Michael Chernus and I, Michael plays Shane, the first mate, he and I were onboard for what we thought initially would be about a 40-minute little sail, but instead it turned into all night long because you have to get out of port, and you have to go out to - past the bunker station, and then you have to wait for your place in line, and the pilot has to come out on the pilot boat, and 14 ships are ahead of you.
And just the - and there's a continuous shift of the watches onboard. You think these guys are just standing there doing nothing, but in fact they're keeping their eye on an awful lot of the gauges, as well as the horizon to see where all the other ships are. So you just find out just how intricate it is, and it's always more fascinating than your general knowledge has already provided you.
DAVIES: Paul Greengrass, I read somewhere that it's sort of a saying among directors that one mistake you don't make is trying to shoot on the water.
GREENGRASS: Everybody said that to me before I started.
DAVIES: So what were some of the challenges that this presented?
GREENGRASS: Well, you've got just the practicalities. Filmmaking is about resources. You know, you need to be able to supply your units, your camera units, your sound units. You need, you know, to be able to get all your costumes and makeup and all the, you know, the infrastructure of it, you know, charge your walkie-talkies, everything.
Obviously if you're on a ship, even a large container ship, incidentally, we were very restricted, you know, by law the number of people we could put on the ship. It's not like saying can you just get, you know, Joe to run a couple of walkie-talkies up to the stage.
Well, you know, if you're 20 miles out to sea, that's quite a prodigious operation, and you've got to climb up 30, 40 feet of ladder. So just the sheer logistics are difficult. Then you've got the weather, which is a profound issue. I mean a lot of the shooting of this involved very small craft, particularly those skiffs, and what I wanted to make the film play was water that was dangerous enough to make it, you know, so you understood, you know, the drama of a skiff attack on a fast-moving container ship.
But obviously that, you know, involves very large safety issues. So we needed, we needed sea that was aggressive enough to be dynamic but not so aggressive that it was dangerous or too dangerous. And so that was a constantly, you know, shifting - I mean I began to get that sort of seaman's affliction of constantly looking at the weather, constantly looking at the sky trying to guess how the sea was going to go.
DAVIES: Well, Tom Hanks, I wanted to talk to you about getting this character, and I know that you had conversations with the real Captain Richard Phillips, as did we at FRESH AIR. I interviewed him when his memoir came out in 2010. And I thought we would listen to just a little bit of that. This a moment near the end of the interview, where we're - he's been this shattering experience, and I asked him how it affected him emotionally then.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
RICHARD PHILLIPS: I did have problems. The first two nights, I would find myself waking up at 5 o'clock in the morning and just be crying my eyes out, bawling, something a New England sea captain doesn't do too much. It was sort of strange to me. So I would, you know, throw some water in my face, and I was just going, what are you a wimp? I'm alive. What do you got to be complaining about?
I was able to talk to - actually, one of the SEALs insisted I talk to a psychologist, and I did. And he really broke it down into chemicals that are excreted by your various glands and what happens, and he would ask me questions about things I had.
And the only problem I had was I would wake up, at that time - it happened twice to me, the first two nights I was off the life raft. After talking to him after the second morning, he gave me - he asked me, what did I do? And I said, well, I told you, just what I said. I'd throw water on my face. I'd go take a shower. I'd say what are you a wimp? What's your problem?
And he said, well, don't do that. Don't fight it. Let it flow. Let it flow as long as it goes. And so I followed his advice and I let it flow. I just sat there in my bed and I probably cried, bawled like a little kid for, I'm going to say two minutes. And then it ran its course, I dried up. Then I threw water on my face, I took a shower and started my day with my coffee. And I never had a problem after that.
DAVIES: And that is the real - that is the real captain...
HANKS: That is so Rich Phillips.
DAVIES: Yes, just for our audience, we just heard Captain Richard Phillips. He is the real Merchant Marine captain who was kidnapped by Somali pirates in 2009. His story is the basis of the film "Captain Phillips," and we're speaking with Tom Hanks, who stars in the film as Captain Phillips, and Paul Greengrass, its director. So Tom Hanks, tell us about this guy and how you got a fix on him.
HANKS: Well, he's actually a very happy-go-lucky, funny, goofy guy, and even that recollection of the clip is almost like he has a humorous pragmatism about everything that he's been through and that he went through. You find out, like for example from Andrea, his wife, there was a time that she would go visit him when he was working, and she stopped doing it long ago because as soon as he steps onboard the ship as the captain, he becomes just the opposite. He is no-nonsense, he is a stickler for detail, he is a pain in the neck to almost everybody that he comes in contact with.
And that's the pressures of the command. You know, you can always ask him questions about were you scared, were you afraid, do you think you're going to lose your life? And he had told me that there were two occasions previously, as a merchant mariner, that he thought for sure that he was going to die at sea.
Once was during a hurricane, which a fear that lasted for the better part of six hours. And another was a fire onboard one of his ships, and that went on for hours, as well. So it went on a little bit longer, the five or six days that he was being held that way, but the lesson that he told me that he learned from it all was that you can withstand more than you think you can withstand. And it's evident even in the fact that he was able to cognizant about the chemical reactions it was happening to him and the physiological breakdown that he had well after he knew that he was safe.
DAVIES: So you saw him in conversation. How did you get the Richie Phillips that's the captain, who's on deck, in command?
HANKS: That's interesting because I didn't see any evident of it anywhere. I read about it in the book, and there was - there was a part of the environmental aspect of making the movie. You do get a sense of how much area that he has to cover and the constant concern. You're just - in that pace I was just saying, well, how do you keep - how do you physicalize(ph) the constant mental strain, the constant algorithm that's going on in your head. And I manifested it as best I could with my own countenance, basing it on, you know, what do you when you have a lot on your mind. Well, you kind of look like this, and you talk like this.
DAVIES: Right, and you talk like Richie Phillips. And I will say, having listened back to that interview, after having seen the film, when I pictured the voices, they sounded the same to me, you and - I couldn't distinguish one voice from the next. So I think you really got his voice down.
HANKS: He's got a - you know, he spent some time in Boston, but he's actually from New Hampshire, and now he lives in Vermont. And it's an interesting - it's the kind of thing you can't get unless you spend a lot of time listening to him and just talking with him in the regular vernacular.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass. Hanks stars in and Greengrass directed the new film "Captain Phillips." We'll talk more after a short break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guests are Paul Greengrass. He directed the new film "Captain Phillips." Also with us, Tom Hanks, who is in the title role.
Now, I wanted to talk about the Somali pirates, Paul Greengrass. There are four of them that take the ship from these little skiffs. And these are powerful characters in this drama. Tell us about the first scene on the shore in Somalia, where we see the crew for this pirate attack, this hijacking, assembled. What are we doing there? What are we learning about these guys that informs our understanding?
GREENGRASS: Well, I mean, piracy, Somali piracy is international organized crime. That's actually what it is. These young men, you know, with their AK-47s attack from the coast of Somalia, but this is activity that's financed and organized thousands of miles away, you know, in Kenya, in Nigeria and actually ultimately in Europe and in some cases in the U.S. It's a highly organized criminal activity.
The young men who are the, you know, the guys who actually attack the ships, you know, they're just the trigger men in essence, and of course, you know, they come from a country that's everything that you would expect and associate with a failed state: collapsed central government, warlordism(ph), crime, gangs, terrorism in certain parts of the country. You know, it's everything that you would imagine and more.
And what you want in this film is to portray something of that with authenticity. You know, there is nothing more dangerous than a young man with a gun who's got nothing left to lose. And so it became important from my point of view that we find young Somali actors to play those parts. And that was the real central challenge of the casting process.
DAVIES: I wanted to ask about that. Where did you find the Somali actors?
GREENGRASS: Well, there's no Somali acting community in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago or whatever. So we had to go to Minneapolis, where the largest Somali community is. And what we found there was a very vibrant and rich and storied community, you know, filled with musicians, actors, filmmaking, you know, writers. Very, very vibrant.
And so what began as I thought would be a very difficult endeavor became very quickly simple. You know, we had 700 or 800 people turn up to the first casting, and, you know, very quickly we identified, you know, Barkhad Abdi and his three friends, actually, as it turned out. And they were just outstanding young actors, and, you know, we chose them, and they went off, and they trained, and they worked hard for a month and a half or whatever, you know, learned to drive those skiffs, which is, believe me, no mean achievement. They learned to climb and fight and all the things that you need, you know, in a movie.
DAVIES: Well, when people see the film, I mean, now that I know that none of this was filmed with the help of computer-generated graphics, when you see the scenes where this tiny little skiff is trying to get close enough to sling a ladder over the side of this massive container vessel, which is going at 18 knots and trying to evade them, it's a scary thing to see, and I'm just thinking these aren't stuntmen. These are your actors having to sling a ladder, going full speed, over the deck of this container vessel and scale it. You know, it's vertical, they're doing this - and they're doing this with a weapon strapped on their backs. This must have taken some effort and training and must have been a little scary.
GREENGRASS: Believe me, I was in some of those skiffs. It was scary because, you know, you get alongside - and it was our, I would say, one of our two greatest safety challenges in the film; is how do you get, you know, what are essentially small, you know, powered skiffs alongside a huge container ship that's traveling at speed because the, you know, the suction from one of those big ships is immense.
And that was the real problem. And, you know, we had to work out all kinds of safety distances and then the whole issue of getting the ladders there, and - but never once - I mean, the physical endurance, I think, of being out on those skiffs hour after hour, you know, not wearing much, to be honest, and having to climb and withstand that swell and judge those distances just right and just getting those skiffs alongside, too, was a prodigious feat, it really was.
DAVIES: Yeah, this is Hollywood, huh, you go and get beat up trying to climb onto a boat speeding along.
GREENGRASS: That's what I said to them. On the first day, I said, listen, forget everything you've ever learned. I don't think this is glamorous. Moviemaking is all about hard work and desire and commitment. Of course you have to have the talent, you know, to start, but in the end it's the will to succeed, as in any walk of life, that really makes the difference.
DAVIES: There's one other little story about recruiting these Somali actors. I heard there was a lovely moment when you told them that they got the job.
GREENGRASS: They didn't hear me. We were in a hotel in Los Angeles down on the ocean, and I said, well, listen, you know, I'd just like you to know that, you know, you've got the part. And they didn't understand. I think they were in shock, to be honest. So we carried on the conversation. I went into my speech about how much hard work it is, and somebody nudged me and said I think you're going to have to repeat it.
So I repeated it, and it was a kind of an "American Idol" moment where they all jumped up shouting.
GREENGRASS: And screaming. And then we went outside to take a picture, and then halfway through the picture, one of them said, I think it was Barkhad said, I've got to go in the ocean. And then the next minute, you know, the four of them were tearing off down the beach to the ocean, throwing off their tops, diving in. It was fantastic to see.
DAVIES: OK, I bet Tom Hanks doesn't do that when he gets a part anymore.
HANKS: Oh, you'd be surprised.
GROSS: Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass will continue their interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Hanks stars in the new film "Captain Phillips." Greengrass directed it. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Tom Hanks, the star of the new film "Captain Phillips," and Paul Greengrass, the film's director. It's based on the memoir by Captain Richard Phillips about the harrowing incident four years ago, when his containership was boarded by pirates and he was taken hostage and held on a small lifeboat for five days.
DAVIES: One of the remarkable moments in the film - and it's a remarkable moment in the story - is when the pirates first make it to the bridge and confront Captain Phillips. I mean, you know, the captain has seen them coming on radar and then tried to repel them. And finally, you know, face-to-face, there are these people that he's feared. And, well, Paul Greengrass, there is an interesting story about the way you chose to kind of capture the drama of that moment in the scene. Tell us about that.
GREENGRASS: I think pretty much most directors would do what I did. You know, you're talking about fashioning a confrontation between four young men who've not acted professionally before and Tom, you know, who is a two-time Academy Award winner. It was a - I didn't want them to be intimidated on the one hand from the job in hand. But on the other hand, I didn't want them to have become friends, because in the end the job was to come through that door and terrorize and threaten and be believable. So we kept them apart. And it's the sort of trick you play, I'm afraid. When you're a director, you, you know you trying to create moments that everybody's looking forward to in a shoot. If there's something that's two, three weeks down the road where everybody's going that's going to be an exciting day when those two groups meet each other. And I think it got everybody excited and, you know, you could feel the set was - there was a good tension in the air. But, of course, if you're making the film there's that bit in your mind that's like a sports coach. You know, you can prepare people as much as you like. But in the end, when they cross that white line, it's about how much desire they've got.
And of course, from Tom's point of view, I mean he'll tell you himself, what you want as an actor is somebody stepping forward and coming at you because then you've got something to play against, and that's called drama, you know?
DAVIES: OK. Well, let's hear about it.
GREENGRASS: That's what we are.
DAVIES: Tom Hanks, I mean you didn't talk to the Somali guys at all in the shooting until that scene, when they confront you on the bridge. Is that right?
HANKS: We didn't, we figured out - us on the crew - we're not going to meet these guys, are we? Oh no, we're not, there's not going to be a party at the hotel that kick, hey, let's celebrate the beginning of principal photography and we'd have cocktails with them. We knew that that was a day. We had seen there as little dots on the horizon, because they'd be working on the skiffs, you know, far away you can maybe make a little bit out of them through binoculars, but no. We heard them coming. We had the views of them from - we were up on the bridge and here they came. And I think there's three of us actually, that are in the scene on the bridge and it was tense. We were scared in the - kind of like the best way possible because we know the guns aren't loaded, but those guys were. They came in, you know, pumped up of all the anxiety of being there in the first place and all the expertise that they had learned, all the work that they had done. So when they came in - I have to say that when they first blew that door open and came in screaming at us - I saw four of the skinniest, scariest human beings on the planet. And the hair did stand up on the back of our heads and it was chaotic, it seemed like the rules had gone right out the window.
In one way we're just trying to survive the scene, which translates to surviving the moment in the film. And what is amazing is is that having seen the film, realizing that what has takes up about maybe 12 or 13 minutes of screen time, from the moment when they first get on to when Moussy and Phillips go off to start searching the ship - that was a full, harried day of 10 hours of shooting.
Now without a doubt, after the fourth or fifth take when we start moving on, you know, to shoot another aspect of the scene, you do say hey, how you doing, nice to meet you.
HANKS: Is it cold in Minneapolis? So you have those kind of moments till they say, ah, I've been watching your movies all my life. You know, you do have those moments, but you do then get right back to it. And they were so on fire that when I saw the movie and could read the subtitles, it was fascinating to hear what they were saying, because we had no idea. You know, shouted Somali sounds like - it doesn't sound like a language you can't possibly recognize. And for all the reasons that you would do it that way, it achieved its desired effect. We were petrified.
DAVIES: So they knew their lines and you knew your lines. But you didn't even know what their lines meant, so you were just playing it out.
HANKS: I had one kind of like piece of information in my pocket, which is that Rich had this fabulous lie and truth that he kept telling them at the same time: I don't know, I'm here with you. You know, they would ask questions, where is your crew. I don't know. He did know where they were. But the - that was a lie. But he'd also say, but I'm here with you. What's wrong with your ship? I don't know. I'm here with you. What's happening? I don't know. I'm here with you. That got played again and again and again because look, the lines went right out the window, the pacing went right out the window. There was no rhyme or reason to it. And I have to say, these guys were so good - the two Barkhads and Mahat and Faysal - that moments came out that did not exist even in the imagination of everybody involved in the movie. This particularly when Moussy, Barkhad Abdi says hey, I'm the captain now. That wasn't in the screenplay. That just came out because we were riding the ups and downs of the scene that suddenly had no rules.
DAVIES: Wow. You know, as we talk about these intense scenes, this would be a good moment, I think, to talk a little bit about Paul Greengrass' - your method of filming. And Paul Greengrass, I know that you began as a journalist making documentaries. And I read a fascinating piece about as you got into feature films you had to learn kind of all of the techniques and language of feature filmmaking.
DAVIES: But if, what I've read is right, you've evolved to the point where you don't do it in the conventional ways - where you have, you know, dollies and specific kind of markers and points from which the action is shot, and the actors all know that and they're hitting their marks. Do you want to just describe a little bit about how you shoot?
GREENGRASS: My chaotic method.
DAVIES: Yeah. And then I want to hear Tom react to it.
GREENGRASS: It's generally to create an obstacle course to drive everyone mad.
GREENGRASS: And, well, listen, I started in documentaries. Going around to places and shooting, you didn't have time to put sticks down and, you know, if you're in the middle of Beirut and there's bombs dropping or wherever, you know, you just don't, you shoot on the shoulder because that's the way you do it. And if you run you run. You know, the camera is there to describe the emotional experience that you're having.
When I moved into making drama, I had to learn to shoot conventionally. But by the time I got to my late 30s, I began to feel that the films that, you know, I was making it work in television - but the films that I was making, somewhere the films didn't ever turn out like the films that I saw in my head. And eventually I gained the maturity and the knowledge of craft and courage, I think, to go back to how I had always found images. And, you know, the most important things that you can do as a director is to set an overall framework and then get out the way. That's your job is to create a safe place, as closely in touch with the feelings that we had as children when we made believe, but with purpose. So you take this story, a simple story of periling on the seas but it seems to have meaning in it. But what is that meaning? What are those meanings? And they're complex and contradictory because it's about the world out there. Create that safe space and let everybody do their thing. That's really the essence of it.
DAVIES: Well, if we look at your films, I'm thinking of "Bloody Sunday," of "United 93," the September 11th story, and this film, it's fast pace. The action is intense. There are hand-held cameras. Tom Hanks, tell us what it's like to be in a Paul Greengrass production, and how that's different from others.
HANKS: You're never aware of when it's your shot. I don't recall thinking oh, now it's my close-up and so now I get to unleash all my bags of tricks here because it's only going to be locked down on me. And this is where I get to throw certain looks or put a very particular spin on something. The way I remember Paul shooting, because we are in a very specific environment and it takes up a very specific amount of space and almost always was very small, we do the scenes from beginning to end, however long they last. Sometimes they're 16 minutes and multiple cameras are used and they reload on the fly or another camera is put on the cameraman's shoulder once one rolls out.
And so you ride the entire scene from beginning to end and then you regroup and then you go back and ride the entire scene again from beginning to end. So it doesn't have that segmented cut up sort of part. There were moments on the bridge where once we had shot a couple of times and I would - I came over to Paul and said, are you going to get that little bit over there by where we do are things that the charts. He says well, we've already got it. I said when? In the course of doing the entire scene, the camera comes in for a close-up and then backs out again. It's swivels around so every conceivable type of segment that Paul, I think, needs for whatever his vision, is obtained without it being the sole focus of what that moment's work is doing, if that makes any sense to you.
I stop seeing the camera very, very quickly. And that is unique. You don't have that kind of structured physics of shooting a film in which all your concentration goes into literally one aspect of what is being captured in that angle, in that lighting, in that lens size. Instead, you're just always behaving and the camera captures that behavior.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass. Greengrass directed and Hanks stars in the new film "Captain Phillips." We'll talk more after a break.
HANKS: This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guests are Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass. Hanks stars in and Greengrass directed the new film "Captain Phillips."
Part of the film takes place on the containership. And then those who know the story know that Captain Phillips ends up on a little lifeboat with the Somali pirates, cast into the sea and a drama of several days then unfolds. Eventually, a Navy destroyer catches up and tension ensues. This was actually shot again, you, in making this film, you don't have a soundstage. All of the stuff in that little lifeboat is really in a little lifeboat. And for folks who don't remember what it looks like, it's not an open lifeboat. It's hard plastic, I guess, or some kind of material and it's covered. So Tom Hanks, just describe a little bit what it was like shooting inside that thing for days.
HANKS: Well, in fact, we did shoot on - it wasn't a soundstage, it was kind of like a warehouse in London in which the life...
HANKS: ...the lifeboat was put on this big gimbal. It's a, you know, it's a hydraulic thing that makes it move and rock and pitch like crazy. And that is more comfortable than being on the open sea because it doesn't have then the swells that make you upchuck. We had one day of shooting in the - actually, a couple because we did some more in Norfolk, I keep forgetting that. We did have a number of days we were in the lifeboat at sea proper. That was a bear. But for the lion's share of the interaction inside, we were in a controllable environment - although, one that was still very small, very stuffy and very, very smelly. But, that really does speak volumes. You cannot do anything but perform for the space when you're in something that small and you're on top of each other as you are.
There is a tiny bit of allowance that they could make for the realities of shooting. We had a little bit of padding on the floor for some of the fight scenes. They tried to put in these rubber seats at one moment but those wiggled too much so we had to yank them out. There was a lot of places to conk your head and scrape a rib cage or two, which we all did. But there's no substitute for being in that tight confines to ratchet up everything that you need to ratch up. You can whisper and it could be a real whisper. And when you start, you know, throwing your fists around and start shouting, it becomes even louder when you're there and it just added to it all.
DAVIES: We spoke earlier about how you did not know the Somali actors who played the pirates until the one scene where they come onto the bridge and there's this intense and dramatic confrontation. When I interviewed the real Captain Richard Phillips, one of the things he said about that time on the raft was that he was never going to give into them sort of psychologically. He wanted to remain their adversary. Did you still kind of have an adversarial relationship with these Somalis or was, I mean was...
HANKS: No. By that time we were shooting we were guys, you know, and we would compare notes. I must say they were very much a team unto themselves because after every take they would break out in some type of argument in Somali talking about what they had just did.
HANKS: And I was saying what? What? Fill me in. And you can't help, I mean, you also have the camera operators and the boom men in there so you have regular conversations. But the focus was such. And again, they were so prepped and so drilled that every time we had to gear up, it became that nature of an adversarial relationship. In fact, you know, there was an awful lot of supplies onboard that lifeboat that Richard Phillips knew was there, but he wasn't about to tell the guys.
In the book, there's one long thing about they were trying to light their cigarettes, you know, with lenses from flashlights, you know, using the sun's power through the window. And Rich Phillips knew where - there was a bunch of matches behind bulkhead number three, but he wasn't about to make their lives easier.
And there is that kind of knowledge that he has throughout that comes out. So I would say that I definitely played an awful lot of emotions much more close to the vest, and was always looking for some sort of advantage to have over the guys. But we saved the adversarial relationships for when we were gearing up for the scene, and in the course of doing the scene.
DAVIES: Paul Greengrass, you want to talk a little bit about working with the Navy? You know, you shot the container ship scenes near Malta. The Navy said, well, we want to help. We can get you a destroyer. I think one of the most powerful moments in the film is after Captain Phillips is rescued, he is brought aboard the USS Bainbridge, the destroyer, and he's taken to the sick bay and greeted by personnel there. Tell us a little bit about that scene, Paul.
GREENGRASS: Well, we had a day - I think it was getting close to the end of the shoot, and the scene that we were due to shoot was actually a scene from Richard's book which was a bit later on, actually, where he'd been cleaned up and he'd been given a uniform and he was shown up to the captain's quarters and given a beer and TV and a phone to call home. That was really the scene.
And Tom and I shot that most of the day. But sometimes when you're filming, you can shoot a scene and it's fine and it's going well, but you just know deep inside both of you, without even looking, you know just know that there's something better. But where is it? Where is that elusive thing that you're looking for, that moment of truthfulness that's going to encapsulate the experience that this man has gone through?
And we happened to have Captain Frank Castellano from the actual Bainbridge onboard, I think it was, who said that he'd first seen Rich Phillips down in the infirmary. So we raced down there at the end of the day. There wasn't much time - which, in a way, was good, because I think it meant that none of us had time to think.
You know, sometimes you can get your best moments in a film in a place of absolute blind panic, because nobody's got time to censor themselves. So you get just sheer, naked instinct. And we went down there, and we went up to the young medical team, the young corpsman there, and I said, listen, just treat this as a training exercise, just except it's got Tom Hanks in it.
GREENGRASS: She looked at me as I was demented.
DAVIES: This was a woman, right?
GREENGRASS: Yeah. Yeah.
HANKS: First class industrial film we were shooting there that day.
GREENGRASS: And I'll let Tom take over the story now.
HANKS: Well, yeah. Those people did not know they were going to be in a movie that day and, you know...
DAVIES: But these are actual Navy personnel. And just to reset the story, I mean, you're coming out of this - you've been through a shattering experience. I mean, you've been physically bruised. You've been sleep-deprived. You're a wreck, and you come down and there are these folks that are going to take care of you. They're actual Navy personnel who have no idea they're going to be in a movie.
HANKS: No. None. And Paul just said, well, what would you do? And she just ran through, well, I'd, you know, try to get his focus. I'd try to talk to him. I'd try to find out how badly he's wounded. I'd try to figure out what blood is his, try to figure out if there's any internal bleeding. I'd take his vital stats. She had a whole procedure, you know, equal to an emergency medical technician.
And so we just - we cranked it, let fly. It fell apart. The very first take fell apart for technical reasons, and also because it was loaded with moments of great self-consciousness, even from the Navy folks. And so they said sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry. And we said, look, do not apologize. There's no such thing as sorry. This happens all the time. We stop scenes. Don't feel like you've committed anything wrong.
We'll just get up and do it again and just follow through. And there's nothing you can say that is incorrect, and there's nothing that you can do that is not going to be worthwhile. So just go ahead and do it. And we did five or six versions of it over, you know - I don't remember much of it - a dizzying period of time.
And what I was working from was actual photographs and a little bit of home video of Phillips, the actual Phillips onboard the Bainbridge when people are congratulating him and saying welcome home, and he's in an absolute daze. You can see in his body language and in his eyes he's barely cognizant of the surreal realities that has just happened to him.
And on top of that, it was, you know, a very nice lady and a very crack team being sweet to Rich Phillips. So it ended up being quite evocative.
DAVIES: Yeah. No, it's just an amazing moment, I mean, kind of seeing her doing her job in a courteous way and bringing this guy back.
HANKS: She says something that is just heart-rendering, which is that you're OK. You're going to be OK. And those are the greatest words that a human being could hear in that circumstance.
DAVIES: Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass, congratulations on this film. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
HANKS: Thank you very much.
GREENGRASS: Thank you.
GROSS: Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Hanks stars in the new movie "Captain Phillips." Greengrass directed it. Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, whose first book, "Interpreter of Maladies" won a Pulitzer. Her first novel, "The Namesake," was adapted into a film. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.